Leaders defend water progress

ATLANTA - Metro Atlanta wants to work with the rest of Georgia to solve the state's short- and long-term water needs, not simply grab as much as it can get from its neighbors.

That was the message delivered Monday during a daylong forum on water sponsored by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

Political and business leaders told an audience of about 200 that many of the region's local governments have been working to reduce their water use since well before the current drought.

"We're not the camel drinking the rest of the state's water," chamber President Sam Williams said.

But that's not the way the rest of Georgia perceives metro Atlanta.

One of the major concerns surrounding the statewide water management plan that will be considered by the General Assembly this winter is that it would do nothing to prevent the fast-growing metro counties from reaching outside the region for additional water supplies.

Newspaper editorial writers across the state have criticized metro Atlanta in recent weeks for failing to comply with the 10-percent water mandate set by Gov. Sonny Perdue in late October.

"Atlanta's water hogs are still slurping it up," The Augusta Chronicle wrote in an editorial published on Monday.

But Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said her city has made $4 billion in water and sewer system improvements since she took office, not only fixing leaks in sewer lines but replacing water lines that were built in the 19th century.

"We have increased our customers and decreased our consumption," she said.

Cobb County Commission Chairman Sam Olens, who also serves as vice chairman of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, said three conservation measures undertaken by the 16-county district since 2003 - charging water-wasting customers higher rates, repairing leaks and installing low-flow toilets - are combing to save nearly 140 million gallons of water per day.

Other speakers pitched proposals that they said could ease the tension between metro Atlanta and the rest of the state over water.

David Kubala, environmental affairs manager for the Cherokee County Water & Sewerage Authority, said removing the salt from sea water could offer such a solution, if water planners can overcome challenging financial and technological barriers.

"One of those areas that doesn't take water from anyone else is desalination," he said.

U.S. Rep. John Linder, R-Duluth, the forum's keynote speaker, talked up his bill to create a federal commission to act as a clearinghouse on water.

"We have about 1 million people in the United States working on water," he said.

"(But) they don't talk to each other ... Bring the knowledge we have on water together and share it with the rest of the world."

While Linder's legislation winds its way through the 110th Congress, the statewide water plan is expected to come up for a vote early in the 2008 General Assembly session.

A council of lawmakers and state agency heads that has been working on the plan for three years is due to vote next week on the final version it will present to the legislature.