Perdue backs water conservation legislation, study of building new reservoirs

Gov. Sonny Perdue announced Wednesday that he is backing legislation packed with water conservation measures as the Atlanta region faces the prospect of losing Lake Lanier as its main source of drinking water.

The legislation calls for state standards requiring water utilities to detect leaks. And beginning in 2012, builders would be required to use “efficient water fixtures” in all new residential and commercial construction. Builders would also be required to use “sub-metering” for new apartment buildings to measure water use for each unit.

Additionally, the bill directs eight state agencies to develop incentives for communities to conserve water. For example, water-saving communities could find it easier to obtain lower interest state loans and apply more frequently for state grants. The bill would also set up a joint House and Senate committee to find new sources of water, including building new reservoirs or expanding existing ones.

Rep. Lynn Smith and Sen. Ross Tolleson, the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Natural Resources and Environment committees, respectively, said they would file the legislation in the coming days.

Called the Georgia Water Stewardship Act, the bill stems from recommendations the governor’s Water Contingency Task Force announced late last year. Perdue formed the panel after a federal judge issued a stinging ruling in July against Georgia in its decades-old water rights dispute with Alabama and Florida.

Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson stunned Georgia officials when he ruled the state has little right to Lanier, a federal reservoir that is the main source of the Atlanta region’s drinking water. The judge has given the states and Congress three years to reach a compromise before restricting access to the lake to levels from the mid-1970s, when Atlanta was a fraction of its current size. Georgia is appealing the judge’s ruling.

Perdue said the legislation he is backing would codify what he called Georgia’s “culture of conservation.”

“These are the right things to do, whether the judge’s ruling is sustained or not,” Perdue told reporters at the state Capitol on Wednesday morning.

Perdue's commitment to conservation has shifted over the years. During a drought in 2007, Perdue told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's editorial board that his order for a 10 percent cutback in water usage in North Georgia was largely symbolic and would have a negligible effect on the area's supply.Later that year he sought to amend those comments, saying conservation is "more than symbolic. ... Conservation will need to be a part of our future because it's the right thing to do. We cannot treat [water] as having no value."

Reactions were mixed among environmentalists and the home building, agricultural and landscaping industries. Some were hesitant to say much about the legislation Wednesday since it had not yet been made public.

“It was a good first step,” said Neill Herring, an environmental lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club and the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “Five years ago it would have been a great first step. There is plenty of room for improvement, but we haven’t seen what [Perdue] has got. It is kind of hard to go by a press release.”

An executive with the Home Builders Association of Georgia said her group wants to study the details in the bill once it is introduced.

“The Home Builders Association embraces water conserving measures as long as they are reasonable,” Kelly Lass, the association’s executive vice president, said in an e-mail. “Home builders already install low-flow toilets and other water-saving faucets and showers.”

Other lawmakers have called for outdoor watering restrictions in the wake of the judge’s ruling. Last week, Rep. Debbie Buckner (D-Junction City) filed legislation that would prohibit outdoor watering for "planting, growing, managing, or maintaining ground cover, trees, shrubs, or other plants" between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily. Some exceptions would apply in her bill.

Perdue said state officials have the power to enforce such restrictions as needed.

“The very fact of trying to do this in a blanket sort of way I’m not sure is the best way to create good water policy,” Perdue said.

Perdue’s administration, meanwhile, is in the middle of negotiating a water-sharing agreement with Alabama and Florida. He said he is optimistic a deal could be reached before the end of this year. Such a compact would be sent to the legislatures in all three states for consideration before being sent to Congress.

“I have been at this a little over seven years now, and I am more optimistic than I ever have” been, Perdue said. “I see a willingness. I see actually an intent on Alabama and Florida’s parts to come together with us for reasonable solutions.”