Water Wards Sound Alarm; They Say Region Shortchanged over Forecasts for Population Growth That Would Decide Withdrawals

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Byline: CAROLE HAWKINS

A forecast of population growth rates in Georgia for the next 40 years will be used to decide who gets state water withdrawal permits and construction money for water projects.

But the early numbers have come in and they don't look right, say regional water planners.

In early June, the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government released its preliminary population and employment forecast. The team's final analysis is expected in August.

The governor's Office of Planning and Budgeting had ordered the study to guide water management statewide. The study is expected to also be used to form policy on funding other state infrastructure, such as new schools and health care facilities.

The institute had requested feedback on the first report as part of the process, and it got a long list of complaints from water councils across the state.

Brunswick Mayor Bryan Thompson, a member of the Coastal Georgia Regional Water Council, said local leaders have plenty reason to be concerned.

"Had we not stepped up and said, 'This is really off the mark,' I think this is what we would have ended up with," he said. "It's not just us. Regions all over the state are having trouble with it."

In one example, the report predicts only one person will be left employed in Coastal Georgia's pulp and paper industry by the year 2050. That gave pause to Randal Morris, public affairs manager for the Georgia Pacific Cellulose pulp mill in Brunswick and a member of the water council.

"There's a lot of capital being invested in Coastal Georgia's paper industry today. We don't plan to go away," he said.

Thompson said he's not sure why numbers like these ended up so far off target.

"Whatever modeling system was used, it was not adequate," he said. "One of my concerns as a mayor is if these numbers stay in place, industries that we are trying to attract into this area might not pick up the phone."

Darien Community Development Director Frank Feild, another member of the coastal water council, criticized the study for the role U.S. Census Bureau counts played.

The study uses census totals from 2000 and 2005 to project population trends. …