Bill aims to tackle water woes

As a certified water and wastewater operator, I’ve spent years analyzing the safest methods of providing clean and sustainable water sources for residents throughout the state.

Georgia’s aging water infrastructure places a tremendous burden on the economy. Many local governments and businesses often struggle to maintain old systems, contributing to a wide array of environmental concerns ranging from sewage leaks to industrial spills.

Instead of focusing on the root of the problem, many cities and counties are faced with hefty fines. They find themselves struggling to make the necessary repairs in a timely fashion, ultimately prolonging the amount of time it takes to respond to a crisis.

To help address these issues, I proposed Senate Bill 269, which takes proactive steps toward restoring and preserving the ecological health of Georgia’s water systems. It also identifies financing options to safeguard the state’s water supply for future generations.

Under the current structure, many local governments in violation of water quality or purity standards can’t afford to fix large-scale problems and often end up paying fines repeatedly, largely at taxpayers’ expense.

We want to encourage businesses and local governments to fix the problem rather than simply provide a temporary solution that could lead to additional problems down the road. Developing and maintaining existing infrastructure addresses our state’s long-term needs and is more efficient both financially and operationally.

SB 269 allows the director of the Environmental Protection Division to notify a person of the opportunity to perform voluntary corrective action in accordance with an administrative consent order. The consent order must specify the alleged violation and prescribe a reasonable time-frame for corrective action. However, EPD can extend the completion date by up to six months to account for delays in the process.

Instead of paying fines, local governments would be allowed to put up a bond or letter of credit to the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority. If a company complies with the timeline and requirements of the consent order, the company will receive its money back to apply toward projects to fix the initial problem.

Currently, state law allows local governments to apply for financing through other sources such as a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This process can take up to 2 1/2 years. Financing through GEFA is much quicker and can help bridge the gap between when the company receives financing from the USDA.

Under SB 269, if local governments do not make the necessary repairs, GEFA can call the bond and make the needed correction to resolve the problem.

This legislation highlights a new, viable solution to finance long-term projects at a time when the state is experiencing some of the most unprecedented budgetary challenges.

As this bill continues its way through the legislative process, I will continue to work with elected officials and interested stakeholders to seek a solution that safeguards Georgia’s most precious commodity, and that’s a clean, sustainable water supply.

Republican Sen. Rick Jeffares, R-Locust Grove, represents the 17th District.