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Southeastern states look at water-use plans

If you thought this past year's plentiful rainfall would make Southeastern politicians and bureaucrats forget about water-use legislation, you're wrong. Officials in both Georgia and Alabama are looking at the possibility of statewide water-use plans.

In Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue's staff along with key legislators have been working on the latest version of a bill to launch a statewide water plan. And this year's version promises to be without the controversy that killed a bill in the last session of the state's General Assembly.

The water planning bill planned for this year's session won't go into whether farmers and businesses should be able to sell their state withdrawal permits in river basins where water is scarce. Last year, the water-selling issue pitted lawmakers supported by farmers and industry - who wanted to sell their water rights - against those backed by environmentalists and local government officials. The latter worried that water sales would cause them to lose access to water needed for growth.

During the current session, state leaders have agreed to support a bill that does little more than give a state agency the power — and presumably the money — to create Georgia's first water management plan. The bill needs to be "inoffensive enough to gain votes for passage," says Robert Bomar of the state attorney general's office, speaking at a recent water conference in Atlanta. The looming questions are which agency gets to control the water plan and how much state money will be available.

A likely candidate for the controlling agency would be the state's Environmental Protection Division, headed by Carol Couch, Georgia's new chief environmental regulator. She's a former hydrologist and biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Despite the disparate views on water, Couch has the support of environmentalists, business people and farmers alike. Couch already has asked Georgia's governor for $500,000 to figure out how much time and money will be needed for a statewide plan and what should be included in such a plan.

Input from the governor's water advisory council, which Couch chaired, indicates that the plan could cost $12 million to $18 million over three years. The council suggested that the plan should determine where Georgians get their water, how much water they now use, and how much they are likely to use in the future.

In addition, the council recommended that the plan allow regions within the state to determine how they use water, as long as they insure that consumption won't threaten human health or the environment. Water policies - such as whether water can be sold or transported from rural areas to cities - probably will be the subject of future legislation.

In Alabama, the Office of Water Resources (OWR), a division of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, has proposed a drought management plan for the state. The plan includes both ground and surface water.

"The proposed adoption of the drought management plan has been recommended to help with the court challenges in the tri-state water lawsuits involving Alabama, Georgia and Florida," says Paul Pinyan, director of agricultural legislation for the Alabama Farmers Federation.

The Alabama Drought Assessment and Planning Team (ADAPT), which drafted the proposed drought plan, was formed by ADECA to coordinate intergovernmental drought response. ADAPT will oversee the implementation of all drought-related activities and will be the liaison between the governor and two groups representing stakeholders — the Monitoring and Analysis Group and the Drought Impact Group.

According to ADECA Water Resources Division Director Trey Glenn, the purpose of the Drought Management Plan is to minimize the impact of drought, develop identifying methodology, develop action plans to be used during a drought and to reduce the risk of drought disasters. The plan outlines both long- and short-term measures to be used to mitigate the effects of drought and to respond to drought conditions.

"There is no way to prevent a drought from occurring, however the effects of a drought can be reduced or even eliminated altogether," Glenn says, adding that the impact of drought can be reduced by improving overall forest health, improving and maintaining water systems and establishing and implementing contingency plans. Additionally, the plan would help prevent drought by determining water conservation measures or by designing alternative emergency water sources.

Under the heading, "Agriculture Drought Response," the plan states the following: "Irrigation water users are encouraged to use best management practices and to use efficient irrigation systems during pre-drought conditions in addition to water conservation practices during droughts. Agriculture users are encouraged to coordinate responses to drought conditions and to help maintain an available supply for future use by educating farmers and:

(1.) Promoting the development and distribution of information on water-efficient irrigation techniques.

(2.) Improving communications and cooperation among farmers and relevant state and federal agencies regarding available assistance during drought conditions.

(3.) Encouraging the installation of water-efficient irrigation technology for newly installed systems.

(4.) Providing information and encouraging farmers to take advantage of available financial incentives for retrofitting and updating older or less efficient systems and distribute a list of such incentives.

(5.) Recommending irrigation system efficiency audits every five to seven years."

The Alabama Farmers Federation is asking members to review the plan to see how it will affect farmers. Growers are encouraged to share their comments with OWR officials. The comment deadline has not been announced by ADECA.

Brian Hardin, director of the Federation's Greenhouse, Nursery and Sod Division, says landscape professionals are listed in the same category as recreational water use, not agriculture. Therefore, they would not have the same priority under the proposed plan.


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