Tussle over plan to supplement Flint River streams

by Ray Henry

ATLANTA (AP) — A plan to send extra water down creeks and streams in southwest Georgia has created a conflict between government officials seeking a bargaining chip in a tri-state water dispute and environmentalists concerned the plan undercuts water rights.

Legislation put forward by Georgia's Environmental Protection Division would allow the state to invest in augmentation projects, or pumps that store extra water in underground aquifers and send it back into waterways during dry seasons. The bill focuses on water use in the lower Flint River, which has feeder streams that can run dry during droughts as farmers tap them for irrigation. State officials say the bill is about protecting farmers and preventing litigation over wildlife, but it is part of a much larger strategy meant to appease Alabama and Florida.

House lawmakers could vote next week on a bill that would ban people from siphoning off the extra water put into waterways by the proposed pumps. Other parts of the plan would force farmers to use irrigation water more efficiently and authorize studies of the available water resources.

Russ Pennington, the EPD's director of policy and public affairs, said one goal was to make sure there was enough water for threatened and endangered wildlife. If those species are harmed in a drought, wildlife officials could force farmers to cut back on their water usage.

"What we had hoped is that if EPD is paying for that water to be in, we could protect that water for that purpose it was put in for," Pennington said. "So If we're trying to protect a threatened or endangered species, it couldn't be taken out for agricultural purposes or municipal purposes or industrial purposes."

There are competing motives behind the plan, one complicated by the politics of a water dispute between Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Georgia's neighbors contend that metro Atlanta takes too much water from the Chattahoochee River system, leaving too little for communities and wildlife downstream. The Chattahoochee River flows south along the Georgia-Alabama line and merges with the Flint to become the Apalachicola River in Florida.

A federal appeals court has overturned a ruling threatening metro Atlanta's main water supply, taking some of the pressure off the region. However, Georgia still has not reached an agreement to end the long-running dispute with the other states.

That's where the augmentation technology comes into play. A lobbying firm run by Joe Tanner, a former director of the Department of Natural Resources, approached the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission to propose a project, said Robert McDaniel, the commission's executive director. It applied last year for $13.5 million in state funding to build demonstration projects to test whether water could be pumped into underground aquifers during rainy seasons, then be pumped back out into waterways during dry spells.

Putting more water in the Flint River system would increase the amount of water that flows into Florida. While this may help endangered or threatened species of mussels or amphibians, there are much larger goals — trading water in southwest Georgia for more water use in metro Atlanta.

If Georgia pumped more water into the rivers outside of metro Atlanta, the city might be able to take more water from the Chattahoochee River system, according to the commission's grant application. Some of that water could be consumed. Other flows could be released downstream to keep pollutants from concentrating when the river water runs low.

"This would supply additional water for metro Atlanta and also augment low flows between Atlanta and Columbus," the commission wrote in its grant application, which includes a longer explanation detailing the "water exchange." The Georgia River Network, which opposes the legislation, provided a copy of the application it obtained from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority.

Ultimately, the test project was scaled back to a single system and awarded $4.6 million in funding. An announcement for the award makes clear the technology is being tested for potential use in both the lower Flint and Chattahoochee river basins.

"Will it work and is it something that 100 of these things in the future would help any problems we have in Georgia? Don't know that," McDaniel said. "That's the reason they call it a demonstration project."

Environmental groups are concerned the current legislation would change water rights, a claim the EPD denies. The legislation would forbid people from taking the stepped-up water flows for their own use. Under current state law, people can use as much water as they want so long as their use does not harm others.

"Right now, no one owns any water in Georgia," said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. "It's a public resource owned equally by all property owners."

Others said they worry that water taken from near the surface could contaminate lower aquifers as it is pumped downward. Project backers say any transferred flows would be clean enough to drink or else be treated. Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, amended the Senate legislation to ban surface water injections. A House committee removed that restriction Friday.

"They say we'll clean up the water before we put it in there," said Williams, a farmer. "But you don't get but one opportunity to mess up an aquifer."

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Follow Ray Henry on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rhenryAP.



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