Compromise passed concerning Flint River

Right now on the Flint River, the EPD is something of a traffic cop, directing who can take water via issuing permits for irrigation and public drinking water systems. (File Photo)

Right now on the Flint River, the EPD is something of a traffic cop, directing who can take water via issuing permits for irrigation and public drinking water systems. (File Photo)

ATLANTA — Whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting over, the old saying goes. It’s certainly true for Flint River water.

Sides in the yearlong Flint River Drought Protection Act battle say it will continue, even after compromising on one item.

The entire state House groaned when House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, called for debate on Senate Bill 213 about 11:45 p.m. on the last day of last year’s legislative session. It had been lobbied so much that they were tired of hearing about it.

Lucky for them, he was kidding. And he was also unable to bring the contentious bill to the floor at such a late hour anyway.

The problem was — and is — the health of the Flint River when drought intersects with all the groups pulling water out of the river, from south metro Atlanta cities and counties to southwest Georgia farmers, as well as kayakers, anglers and environmentalists who want to leave water in the river.

A compromise measure passed overwhelmingly by the House and Senate last week allows the state to pump water up from aquifers to help four southwest Georgia streams, to protect endangered species. It’s a narrow bill, given the range of uses and demands that have to be balanced on the Flint.

State Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, wrote SB 213 to start to work on all those demands. It proposed cutting a long-unused portion of the law that told the director of the state Environmental Protection Division to buy irrigated agricultural land out of production during drought years in order to save water.

The director never did it because the Legislature never appropriated him any money to do so. So it did no good.

Tolleson’s bill proposed “augmentation” — the term he used for pumping water up from aquifers to augment the Flint’s flow as needed. It also mandated some new farm irrigation efficiencies.

“If we don’t manage the process” of Flint use, Tolleson warned, “the federal courts will.”

It was a reference to the threat of a federal lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act on behalf of endangered mussels that inhabit the lower Flint.

But other Flint constituents paid more attention elsewhere, either praising more water or criticizing what they saw as overkill.

“If we can get into the lower aquifers and we can get out of them a flow that’s needed for irrigation, the future’s a lot brighter for keeping those irrigation pumps running,” said Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. His organization has supported the bill through many of the edits, including the final compromise.

He was referring to an aquifer below the Floridian system that’s harder and pricier to access, but doesn’t have the impact on the Flint flow that the Floridian aquifer does.

The council, he said, wants to make sure that in case of drought, farmers “have access to what resources are available, groundwater being the obvious source.”

‘Dried up’

Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers was one of an odd mix of environmentalists and certain Republicans who thought it was a poor idea or poorly executed — or both.

“This addresses some endangered species issues in about a third of the watershed” and that’s important, said Rogers, as well as the agriculture water efficiency standards and comprehensive studies on the river flow. But “this does not solve the Flint’s problems … The truth is, the Flint River is dried up, upstream and downstream.”

The pumps and infrastructure for augmentation, for Rogers and others like him, is a needless expense and may disrupt the aquifers, whereas efficiency is cheap. Indeed, there has been a moratorium on augmentation in coastal Georgia because of the risk of polluting aquifers.

Right now on the Flint River, the EPD is something of a traffic cop, directing who can take water via issuing permits for irrigation and public drinking water systems.

Lower Flint users tend to see south metro Atlanta cities and counties as water hogs, and some thought augmentation might be a pricey amenity to keep the city from having to be more careful with water.

Other critics said the bill had the unintended consequence of giving the EPD actual ownership of the water, something it does not have now, and the ability to play favorites with different types of permit holders.

Musella state Rep. Robert Dickey was one of the Republicans who looked askance at some of the old versions but likes the compromise.

“I think the worry with some of us in the House was that EPD was trying to expand their authority,” Dickey said.

“I think we have to be very careful, especially those of us in agriculture that depend on water, that the water rights that we do (have) in this state, to keep those rights.”

State Rep. Patty Bentley of Reynolds is a Democrat who was always for it.

“I serve on the Agriculture Committee. … My district is very heavily agricultural, and I know my farmers supported this,” she said. “So I was on board with this from day one.”

The compromise leaves in place the unfunded, noneffective EPD program to buy agriculture land out of use during drought, but it doesn’t obligate the director to actually do it. Yield has gotten so much better and land more valuable since the law was written, Tolar said, that no farmer would want to take any cheap offer anyhow.

Tolleson, meanwhile, said he wants to look into a bill next year for the part of the river above about Macon County to “make sure we’re not overdrawing from the upper Flint.” That is, the part where south metro Atlanta counties get their jealously guarded drinking water.

A fight there is sure to make many legislators groan.