JUDSON H. TURNER: Unfounded concerns, rumors surround revision of Flint River Drought Protection Act

GUEST COMMENTARY: Scare tactics used in opposing the Senate bill demonstrate its need to clarify the drought act

Judson H. Turner

Judson H. Turner

When I became director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) on Jan. 1, 2012, the southern part of the state was in the throes of a significant multi-year drought. By some measures, this was the worst drought on record in the lower Flint River Basin where historically low stream flows were recorded. To make matters worse, several federally-protected animal species inhabit stretches of these streams.

EPD took several steps to address the drought impacts in the basin. First, with local and federal partners, we initiated a pilot project in one of the creeks where endangered mussels were identified, to augment the surface water flows with a modest amount of groundwater. Second, consideration of all new agricultural surface water and Floridan aquifer groundwater permits in the lower Flint River Basin was suspended. Finally, I began exploring a set of substantive revisions to the Flint River Drought Protection Act.

In the meantime, we also worked with leaders in the General Assembly and the agricultural community on a few targeted adjustments to the Act to help us manage through any intervening droughts until these more substantive changes could be made. The product of that effort is Senate Bill 213, introduced by Senator Ross Tolleson in 2013 and presently pending before the House of Representatives.

As the debate over Senate Bill 213 continues, the facts are being replaced with unfounded concerns and rumors. Here are the facts: The legislation clarifies the EPD director’s authority to suspend surface water withdrawals below a state-funded augmentation project during an extreme drought. Such suspension would occur where the state augments flow in streams that would otherwise risk losing all surface water flow. In a very practical sense, without augmented water in those stream stretches, there would not be any water for those surface water withdrawals anyway.

The state’s direct regulation of groundwater and surface water withdrawals over 100,000 gallons per day (gpd) has existed in Georgia since the 1970s. The provisions of Senate Bill 213 related to suspension of surface water withdrawals apply only to those holding agricultural permits to withdraw more than 100,000 gpd. Contrary to the protests of some, this bill is not a wild expansion of the EPD director’s power or a fundamental shift in the state’s water use law. The misinformation and scare tactics used in the debate around this bill make it evident that the clarification this bill would provide is needed now and can’t wait until we face the next emergency.

The state is committed to developing a set of drought management tools that fit the specific geology of the lower Flint River Basin, which can be successfully used to protect minimum stream flows and, at a minimum, stave off any draconian, judge-made or federally imposed management solutions aimed at protecting endangered species. By the next drought, working with those interested in the basin’s resources, I hope to have the tools in place to protect minimum flows, avoid endangered species litigation and manage through the scarcity by successfully balancing the needs of the varied users in the basin.

Judson H. Turner is director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.