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Bills target conservation
Goal: Trim water use
WEATHER 3-11-JD fisherman
A fisherman enjoys Lake Lanier. - photo by Jim Dean (previous profile)
Within an hour of each other last week, the state House and Senate passed the same bill for the same reason.

Gov. Sonny Perdue said in a statement that House Bill 1094 and Senate Bill 370 promote “water conservation in Georgia and [show] our neighbors that we are serious about being good stewards of our natural resources."

Though approved during what has been one of the state’s wettest winters, the 16-page legislation outlines a variety of measures, programs and regulations to create a “culture of water conservation.”

Topping the list are internal reviews for state agencies to examine, improve and consider incentive-offering programs for water conservation.

District 27 state Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, said he voted for the bill Wednesday because it could help the tri-state water war between Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

“The bill is intended to send a message and I think that’s what it’s doing,” Murphy said. “What’s in the bill is reasonable and it sends the right message to the other two states.”

Last year, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson said the use of Lake Lanier had strayed too far from its original stated purpose of flood control, navigation and hydropower.

The lake wasn't built to supply water. But in 1975, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowed Gainesville and Buford to withdraw 10 million gallons of water per day since their previous intake structures, in the Chattahoochee River, were inundated by the lake's construction.

In the early 1970s, the corps began allowing other cities to withdraw water on an interim basis.

A few years later, Cumming received its permit from the corps and is now allowed to withdraw up to 37 million gallons of per day from the lake to supply drinking water to nearly all of Forsyth County.

Judge Magnuson gave the city of Atlanta three years to win congressional approval to continue withdrawing drinking water from the lake.

In the meantime, congressional action can be avoided if the three states can resolve their nearly 20-year-old battle. Murphy said this bill is a step in that direction.

“I would speculate that there’ll be some other things coming down the road here that, as we come closer to the 2012 deadline, will also prove we’re serious about solving our water issues,” he said.

“But at some point in time, the governors are going to have to come to the table, they’re going to have to say 'enough is enough. Let’s get serious about this. We’re affecting people’s lives, we’re effecting the economy ... we need to get a reasonable settlement that everybody can live with.’”

The Senate bill must be approved by the House or vice versa before it reaches Perdue.

In addition to having state agencies look into their own operations, the legislation would require public water systems to conduct audits and loss detection programs.

It also clarifies when local governments can impose tougher outdoor watering restrictions. But it’s not just water and government agencies that could be impacted by the measure.

There is a corresponding appeals process to those adversely affected by the outdoor watering provisions.

Contractors could also be impacted since the bill requires all new construction on or after July 1, 2012, to install high-efficiency plumbing fixtures and cooling towers.

District 23 state Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, said the bill could be “a major stride in ending the battle” with the other two states.

“It really is a balanced effort that will help ensure Forsyth County is able to enjoy the beauty and economic benefits of Lake Lanier,” he said.

It was also the “right thing to do for all of Georgia, and it is especially important in preserving and protecting Lake Lanier ... so that it remains the source for drinking water for over 4 million people.”

The measure is supported by the Georgia Water Coalition, an alliance of 150 organizations that promotes fair management of water. The Lake Lanier Association and the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper are among its members. 

But Wilton Rooks would like to see even tougher measures.

Rooks, vice president of technical programs for the lake association, called the bills “a good step in the right direction," noting the group supports them in general.

“In the long term, we would like to see the state move in the direction of more consumptive use permits, as opposed to just withdrawal permits,” he said. “At the end of the day, it matters as much as to how much water the various users return to the Chattahoochee as it does to how much they take out.

“The more efficiently water is utilized, the less pressure there will be on Lake Lanier.”

Stephen Gurr of the FCN regional staff contributed to this report.