DOUG HOLT: Flint River basin bill draws scrutiny in House

Last week was the next to last for this year’s legislative session. In the House, we saw a relatively even division of our time between committee work and floor consideration of Senate bills. In the course of the week, we voted on 30 bills and resolutions on the House floor, and also cast over two dozen votes in the process of working out differences between House and Senate versions of bills. Of the bills and resolutions, virtually all of them were fairly workaday measures, and not of very great general interest. One bill, however, after a lengthy journey to the House floor, stood out.

SB 213 is intended to hold off potential federal judicial intrusion into management of water flow in the Flint River basin. As with any river, the Flint has many farms and businesses along its course that draw water from it. Under normal conditions, water flow is adequate to meet these needs. However, during extreme droughts, water flow can drop sufficiently to threaten survival of aquatic organisms, some of which are on the federal endangered species list. Contention that withdrawals from the river during such times make matters worse threatens to land the issue in federal court. This could result in a court-ordered intrusion into the management of the river, as has happened elsewhere. Aside from the loss of our state’s control over some of its own water resources, this possibility also creates a great deal of uncertainty for the farms and businesses dependent on water from the Flint.

In order to curb this threat to the economic well-being of the region, the bill would implement new management efforts by the state. The first of these would be a phased-in increase of the irrigation efficiency standard required for large-scale agricultural users. This means folks who draw enough water (that is, 100,000 or more gallons per day) to be required, under current law, to have a permit from the state Environmental Protection Division, or EPD. Second, and more controversially, the bill would give the EPD the power to do what is called “flow augmentation”, which would involve pumping water from underground aquifers into the Flint River basin during times of extreme drought. The bill also clarifies that the EPD does have the power to temporarily suspend the large withdrawal permits at points downstream from where flow augmentation water is added.

SB 213 had passed the Senate last year, which gave observers plenty of time to examine its provisions prior to this year’s legislative session. A number of concerns were raised by various interest groups. There was debate about whether the bill could somehow authorize transfer of water between river basins in the state, which is seen in a very negative light in many places outside of metro Atlanta. There was concern that the bill was so broad that it would amount to a power grab by the state and the EPD, and be a negative precedent for our traditional interpretation of water rights. In addition, sportsman and water recreation groups were fearful that the bill would damage their interests all along the river. Thus, though the bill was available in committee in the House from the very beginning of this year’s session, it did not move quickly, and saw a great deal of further discussion. Many changes were made, to include a prohibition on possible interbasin water transfers, as well as a restriction of the flow augmentation provisions to a much smaller and more precisely defined area. Even so, the bill still faced significant opposition as it finally came to the House floor last week, and I was fully prepared to vote in opposition.

However, after the bill had been voted out of committee, the authors had continued to work with those having concerns, and agreement was reached on a further amendment. This amendment focused the flow augmentation provisions so that they could only be used for aquatic life protection purposes in the more tightly defined area. Adoption of the amendment during the floor consideration of the bill changed the dynamic of the discussion completely. Several of the bill’s once fiercest opponents got up to speak, explaining that this final amendment changed the bill into a worthwhile measure that they would support. The amendment also addressed my concerns, so I supported the bill, which passed by 164 to 3.

Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, represents District 112, comprised of Morgan County and part of Newton County, in the Georgia House of Representatives. He can be reached at 404-656-0152 or by email at Doug@DougHolt.org.