By RAY HENRY for Associated Press
Facing a court ruling that could severely restrict Atlanta’s water supply, Georgia officials adopted new environmental rules Wednesday meant to strengthen the state’s hand in a long-running water dispute, a conflict Gov. Nathan Deal doesn’t think will be won in court.
The water conflict came to a head when U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled in 2009 that Atlanta had little right to draw water from Lake Lanier on the Chattahoochee River, the main source for 3 million people in the metropolitan region. Unless political leaders cut a deal next year, the judge said he will cut Atlanta’s water usage to levels last seen in the 1970s.
Georgia has taken its case to the 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals, although Deal was skeptical Tuesday that his state will prevail.
“I don’t think we can look and expect that we’re going to reverse Judge Magnuson’s decision, even though we are continuing that appeal,” the governor told a gathering of the National Federation of Independent Business. Deal also predicted that Congress will not intervene.
Instead, Deal said the state must take steps to expand and manage its water supply. He has proposed spending $300 million over four years to build and expand reservoirs and fund water planning by local governments. Deal said he wants to negotiate an agreement with the new governors of Alabama and Florida to the end the dispute.
One of several bargaining chips are rules adopted Wednesday by the Department of Natural Resources to provide greater scrutiny on requests to take water out of one river basin, use it and return it to another basin. Those transfers diminish water flow in the host river, a problem during dry spells, and make less water available for those downstream.
Under the new rules, regulators should consider the effects a transfer has on water quality, local needs for water, whether conservation has been attempted and whether the shift is financially feasible compared to other ways of getting water. It instructs Georgia regulators to consider the consequences on other states.
The guidelines comes from a statewide water plan adopted in 2008. Linda MacGregor, a state regulator overseeing watershed protection, said officials were already analyzing some of those factors, thought not in as much detail.
Environmental groups including the Sierra Club criticized the rules as weak because regulators can ultimately ignore them and approve a water transfer anyway. Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring said lawmakers should have enshrined tougher rules into law.
“It provides the appearance and not the substance of regulation,” Herring said. “We’d prefer legislation to regulation on a subject like this because legislation expresses the will of the people as opposed to the will of an appointed board.”
State Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, said regulators need flexibility to accommodate growth or serve communities at the boundaries of watersheds. He said there was not enough political support to pass legislation.
Besides the new rules on water transfers, lawmakers last year passed conservation laws requiring high efficiency toilets, water-saving plumbing fixtures and limiting outdoor watering at midday. Tolleson said conservation attempts could ease negotiations with Alabama and Florida.
“I think it’s always good when you go to the negotiating table to say, “Look, this is what we’ve tried to do to help,'” Tolleson said. “It’s bad when you go to the negotiating table and haven’t done anything.”