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Thursday, February 6, 2014 - 2:30pm

Water, Water Everywhere But Not A Drop To Drink

Updated: 9 months ago.
A bill under consideration by state lawmakers would prevent farmers from withdrawing some water from the Flint River basin during severe drought. Opponents say the bill would permit government overreach, and threaten individual property rights. But the bill’s supporters say it would be in effect during extreme weather conditions only, and would pertain only to water from augmented stream flows.

"Here's this year's stealing bill."

That's how one hardened lobbyist described the so-called Flint River bill. Most Gold Dome insiders can appreciate the state Capitol humor inherent in that remark, from Mark Woodall of the Sierra Club. But the bill’s backers say the measure would protect the environment while also safeguarding water during difficult times.
Moving past the rhetoric, here are the specifics of the bill.

The measure would keep farmers with water permits from accessing any water in the Flint River basin that came from “augmented flows” under certain conditions.

Now stay with me because water law isn’t something for fools or dilettantes. This bill, according to Woodall and other environmentalists, would change property rights law in Georgia and would increase the power of state government.

A Case Of Government Overreach?

What the law would do is this: it would allow the director of the state Environmental Protection Division, in extreme drought conditions, to bar permit holders from accessing water that comes from additional flows of the Flint River and any of its tributaries in southwest Georgia.

Quick geography lesson: the Flint flows from Peachtree City some 200 miles or more south to Bainbridge.

Additional flows, for those of you with a hankering to learn more about water rights, could come from a dam releasing water, or from a well or a reservoir. Permit holders would have recourse if the EPD suspended their rights, but they’d have file the protest within five days.

Opponents like the Sierra Club say the bill interferes with the existing permitting process and also alters something called riparian rights. My old Latin days tell me that ‘riparian’ has something to do with river beds. More on this below.

“You could dry Georgia out with this law, if you wanted to,” Woodall said.

Riparian Rights 101

He notes the bill is opposed by Georgia’s largest peanut farming company and others who have signed a letter OF protest.

The bill passed out of committee Wednesday, and could be on the floor of the House as early as Monday.

But it won’t pass before a full airing of the pros and cons. That’s because Rep. Regina Quick, an Athens Republican, has filed a minority report, which automatically extends debate time. She broke ranks with her party to vote against the bill in committee.

“It really is government overreach in my opinion with not much if any boundaries or limitations on the EPD director,” she said.

She added, “We have a riparian rights system in Georgia. The state doesn’t own the water. This bill would expand the reach of the EPD and negatively affect those private property rights.”

It's Not Easy Being Green

Needless to say, there are others who see the situation quite differently, including Bryan Tolar, with the Georgia Agribusiness Council. Tolar said the bill would keep Georgia water disputes out of the courts, and would allow the state to act quickly during extreme drought conditions. And he pointed out that the expanded power of the EPD director would go into effect only during severely dry conditions and in only one part of the state – southwest Georgia.

He also said the bill protects organisms such as mussels in the stream beds by barring water withdrawals during extreme drought.

“This bill helps protect the environment, and helps protect the integrity of the permits already issued by the state of Georgia,” he said. “We should be for the environment and I’m sorry that the environmental groups are not for the environment, and that’s exactly what it’s come to.”

Tolar said the bill doesn’t change the law governing the Flint’s tributaries; rather, it clarifies existing law, which uses the word “basin” to refer to bodies of water that flow from the Flint.

What, you’re slightly fatigued from talking about riparian rights? Ok, we’ll wrap up for today. But not before a few coming attractions.

Following The Money And The Women

Coming up Friday, the Senate will vote on the amended FY 2014 budget. That’s the budget that the legislature passed last year before it could foresee expenditures like how many new students would show up at schools around the state. Lawmakers don’t add money for new initiatives to the mid-year budget because it’s considered an adjustment to the current year budget. The $20.1 billion FY 2014 budget includes an additional $180 million for schools – mostly to keep up with the cost of more students.

The House has already passed it, and it’s likely to move fairly easily through the Senate, and then onto Gov. Deal for his signature.

What’s that breeze you feel? Yep, it’s the session cruising on past you. As House Speaker David Ralston said on Thursday morning, “Do y’all realize that come Monday, we will be half way through the session?”

He added, “Barring weather, of course.”

And on Friday, as a reminder, GPB’s On The Story will include a panel discussion on the representation of women in Georgia politics. It will feature Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann, who represents Alpharetta, Roswell and John's Creek, and Jan Selman of the New Power Pac, which aims to elect more women to political office in Georgia. NPR Newswoman Cokie Roberts will also be on the show, discussing her new book, “Founding Mothers,” and giving her two cents on politicians of the female persuasion. Don’t miss it.

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