Monday, December 20, 2010

Proposed Water Transfer Rule Doesn’t Go Far Enough to Protect State’s Rivers, Communities

Water diversions from Georgia rivers that impact more than half the state’s population may continue without proper oversight from state environmental regulators if a proposed rule presented to Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources Board (DNR Board) is implemented, according to advocates with the state’s leading water protection groups.

On Tuesday, Dec. 7, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) presented proposed changes to state rules governing water withdrawals involving interbasin transfers—the process of removing water from one river and using it and/or discharging it to another river.

The practice is particularly controversial because transfers can harm the health of rivers and reduce economic development potential in downstream communities.

EPD is now accepting public comments on the rule through close of business Jan. 10 and is expected to present a final version of the proposal to the Board at its Jan. 26 meeting.

“The proposed rule is a positive step forward. It includes specific criteria that should be evaluated before EPD allows an interbasin transfer. Unfortunately, the language in the rule does not require that EPD evaluate those criteria,” said Joe Cook, Executive Director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative in Rome, a member of the statewide Georgia Water Coalition. “It only regulates water transfers if EPD chooses to do so.”

At issue is one word in the rule: “should.” Currently, the rule reads that EPD “should” evaluate interbasin transfer criteria that are part of the State Water Plan adopted by the General Assembly and Governor in 2008. These criteria encourage EPD to consider, among other things, the availability of other water supplies, the effectiveness of a community’s water conservation program and the impacts of the transfer during drought conditions before allowing an interbasin transfer.

“These criteria are good, but the use of the word “should” is the equivalent of encouraging your child to clean up their room,” said Juliet Cohen, an attorney with Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper who spoke on behalf of the Coalition at the Board meeting. “If I want my children to clean up their rooms, I tell them they MUST clean up their rooms. For this rule to have any legal teeth, “should” needs to be replaced with “shall.”

During the 2010 General Assembly session, 22 senators and 67 representatives sponsored legislation that mimicked the proposed rule currently before the DNR Board. That bill required EPD to evaluate the interbasin transfer criteria outlined in the State Water Plan. The measure died when legislative leaders refused hear the bills in committee.

The timing of the proposed rule appears to be an effort to preclude legislative action during the 2011 session, according to the Coalition. EPD Director Allen Barnes has stated his preference to address interbasin transfer rules through the DNR Board rather than through the General Assembly.

Interbasin transfers occur in 28 Georgia counties, impacting 5.5 million people in those counties. Millions more downstream may be impacted by these water diversions. About 90 percent of the state’s water transfers occur in Metro Atlanta. Most of the water is diverted from the Chattahoochee, Coosa and Flint rivers.

Water transfers in the Flint River basin, are in large part responsible for a 60 percent reduction in low flows since the early 70s. Return of those water diversions to the Flint would improve flows by as much as 50 percent. Canoe and kayak outfitters on the Flint lost nearly 4,000 customers as a result of low flows during the 2010 paddling season.

The Chattahoochee loses 48 million gallons per day and the Coosa loses 10 million gallons per day.

“Communities downstream from Metro Atlanta are looking for help from state regulators; they want to know that their water interests are being considered,” said Cook. “The criteria outlined in the proposed rule should provide those assurances, but only if the rule requires that EPD consider the criteria.”

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