Gov. Nathan Deal put his weight behind controversial legislation that could allow state officials to pump extra water down southwest Georgia streams, one more step aimed at pacifying the long-running fight over regional water rights.
The governor used a part of a major water policy speech Wednesday to push the passage of Senate Bill 213. The legislation would give the state new powers to restrict farmers from drawing water from the Flint River basin during dry spells.
“All of us understand that we need to have better control over water supplies and we need to have better stated policies that are backed up by legislative demands that give the EPD director the ability to make difficult choices during times of drought,” said Deal.
Environmental groups see the legislation, which has passed the Senate and is pending in the House, as a threat to longstanding Georgia water law and an intrusion of private property rights. They also fear the legislation’s true intent is to allow the construction of a new network of pumps that could store water in underground aquifers and siphon downstream during drought.
Deal’s administration last year signed off on a study to test whether that type of pumping infrastructure would work. But he said Wednesday that the legislation is not linked to a potential effort to build a pumping network. Instead, he said, allowing more downstream releases could help environmentally threatened species during drought and prevent tinkering from Washington.
One of Florida’s central claims in the long-running legal battle over water rights is that reduced flow from Georgia during dry seasons threatens endangered aquatic species. State officials have long been frustrated by claims from Florida oystermen that metro Atlanta is draining too much water upstream and not releasing enough downstream.
“It’s important for us to be proactive rather than reactive and this legislation will give us a chance to do that,” said Deal, adding: “If we use the water to supplement in times of drought species that are in jeopardy, it is to our advantage to do that. Because the thing we don’t want to happen is for some of those species because of lack of water to be classified as endangered.”