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Tuesday, August 30, 2011 - 12:38pm

A 'Perfect Storm' of Water Issues

As lawmakers wrap up a special session this week, one Senator is already thinking about the next legislative session in January, and the 'perfect storm' of issues facing Georgia, including dwindling water reserves, rising energy costs and aging infrastructure.

Sen. Ross Tolleson says these issues keep him up at night. For example, he says Georgia can’t wait much longer to find out if the federal government will fund the Savannah harbor deepening. And he says the state has to act because time is running short.

Tolleson of Perry chairs the natural resources and the environment committee. And he says if the federal government cannot fund the harbor deepening project, the state will have to step in and pick up the full cost.

That’s estimated to be $600 million. The deepening will allow larger ships coming from the Panama Canal to visit the Savannah port.

Tolleson says while he defers to Gov. Nathan Deal on the matter, lawmakers may have to consider earmarking funds in next year’s budget. That means it could be a topic of discussion as early as January.

“You’re talking about actually doing the project so we’ve got to move on that," he said at a press conference Tuesday. "And I would think sometime in 2012 we’re going to have to know which way we’re going, whether we’re funding it or how much we’re funding it or how much the feds are funding it.”

The 2013 fiscal year begins on July 1. The state legislature will take up that year’s budget in January.

Tolleson says not funding the harbor deepening would devastate Georgia economically because so many companies depend on imports and exports coming through the port.

Large ships will start coming through the Panama Canal in 2014.

Other bodies of water are also posing challenges for Georgia.

Gov. Deal has allocated $300 million for water infrastructure over the next four years. But Tolleson says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still deciding how much water Georgia can withdraw from the Lake Lanier federal reservoir.

“That $300 million could grow exponentially if we get a plan back saying, ‘We’re going to reduce your withdrawals out of Lanier in ten years, 20 years,’ and stuff like that," he said. "We just really don’t know what that plan is going to be.”

Georgia is battling Tennessee and Alabama over the water rights to Lake Lanier. A federal court recently ruled that Georgia can use the reservoir.

Tolleson said transportation also continues to vex the state. He says each year Georgia waits to find a new funding sources for transportation, it just digs itself into a deeper hole.

He said he agreed with Gov. Deal on moving a transportation tax vote from July to the November 2012 General election, when more voters go to the polls. But that decision was tabled last week after Tea Party activists and others voiced concern.

Despite rising tax collections, Georgia is facing a period of austerity. Deal recently asked state agencies to cut an additional 2 percent from their budgets. So it remains unclear if there is the political will or the budget to fund all of these initiatives.