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Water supply task force report headed to governor

ATLANTA -- The state's report outlining a program that would fund low-interest loans for planning and building new reservoirs and wells aimed at increasing Georgia's water supply has been approved and now heads to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.

The Georgia Water Supply Task Force on Wednesday approved its recommendations, which remain relatively unchanged from the draft report submitted last month. Georgia Environmental Finance Authority Chairman Kevin Clark said he expects the governor to approve the plan as soon as next week.

The program would use $300 million to expand Georgia's water supply by building multi-million dollar reservoirs, reopening inactive wells or drilling new wells, and says the state should offer loans to municipalities to pay for such projects.

Clark said the GEFA and the Department of Community Affairs will begin accepting applications from communities seeking study and project funding at the first of the year and will hold workshops though the spring to help communities through the application process. The proposals will be evaluated through May, with awards set to be issued in June.

The governor has said Georgia needs to show good faith by doing what it can to expand its water supply. A federal court ruling put Georgia in danger of having access to Lake Lanier severely restricted, but a federal appeals court overturned that decision in June. There are other legal challenges to the state's water usage, but the largest legal battle focuses on Lake Lanier, the main water supply for more than 3 million metro Atlanta residents.

Water from Lake Lanier flows along Alabama and into Florida.

The task force recommended that potential watershed projects be scored on multiple criteria: need, finances, timeliness and local support. The recommendations come from multiple meetings held from March to September, including input from the public.

Critics of the state's plan say existing water systems should be made more efficient before the state puts money into building new reservoirs. The task force's plan does not call for any money to be spent on conservation efforts. Also, skeptics are concerned that reservoirs cost millions of dollars in planning and consulting fees -- and that's before any groundbreaking. Experts say the projects can take anywhere from eight to 15 years to finish.

Georgia already has about 90 reservoirs used for drinking water, according to the state Environmental Protection Division. Three reservoirs are being built or have not yet been used. Nine more projects are under review. Permits are needed from both the state government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and it's unclear when they would be approved.