District concerns delay vote

ATLANTA - Opposition to the boundaries and membership of proposed regional water districts is causing those charged with crafting Georgia's first statewide water plan to think twice before acting.

Members of the Georgia Water Council agreed Friday to postpone a final vote on a plan the state Environmental Protection Division has been developing for three years.

The council will vote instead at its final meeting on Jan. 8, a session that EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said earlier this week was intended to be a signing ceremony formally handing over the document to the General Assembly.

For months, elected officials and newspaper editorial writers from outside of the Atlanta area have criticized the water plan as essentially a conspiracy to allow the rapidly growing metro region to grab water from other parts of the state.

Joined by environmental advocates, their general complaints found a specific cause for concern more recently when the council decided to draw the boundaries of a series of regional water planning districts - a key component of the statewide plan - along existing political lines.

The original version of the plan called for the lines to be drawn to coincide with Georgia's river systems.

Environmentalists opposed the creation of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District in 2001 in part because it takes in segments of five river systems.

That setup makes it legal to move water within the district from one river basin to another, which environmental groups oppose as disruptive of natural flows.

Drawing regional water districts in the rest of the state the same way would cause the same problem, said Julie Mayfield, spokeswoman for the Georgia Water Coalition, an alliance of environmental groups.

"Our concern is those boundaries would encourage more interbasin transfers," she said. "The first place they ought to look to meet water needs is within their own basin."

EPD Director Carol Couch, who also serves as chairwoman of the water council, said forming regional water districts along municipal service-delivery lines is important because it aids efforts to boost local economies.

A key reason for developing a water plan is to ensure there's adequate water throughout the state for economic growth, she said.

But Couch said tailoring regional districts according to the way water flows across Georgia also is important.

"You can't go in either direction," she said. "You must go both."

Representatives of local governments support dividing regional water districts along existing municipal lines because local governments eventually will have to pay for the additional water supplies and water quality improvements that the plan advocates.

But they aren't happy that the plan doesn't guarantee local elected officials membership on the boards that will run the regional districts.

Todd Edwards of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia said counties are asking for assurance that at least half of the 18 members appointed to each district board will be local elected officials.

"This is the one means to ensure that the public is adequately represented," he said. "Local officials are accountable through the ballot box."

Rep. Lynn Smith, R-Newnan, a member of the water council, thanked Couch for suggesting that no action be taken on Friday with such concerns still unresolved.

"I appreciate the fact that we're going to slow down a little bit," said Smith, who also serves as chairman of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. "Arbitrary dates are not what we're basing our decision on."

Dave Williams can be reached at dave.williams@rockdalecitizen.com.