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A new water wars front quietly opens in the state Legislature

Georgia Republicans are pushing legislation that could reshape how the state manages its waterways by giving environmental regulators broad new powers to restrict and increase water flow along the state’s border with Florida.

Their professed goal is to create more leverage for Georgia in its decades-old legal fight with Florida and Alabama over regional water rights. But critics see more devious forces at play that could allow the construction of a largely untested system of pumping infrastructure and rob property owners of their rights to the water on their land.

The proposal, Senate Bill 213, seems rather dry at first glance. It would empower state regulators to restrict farmers from drawing water from the Flint River basin during dry spells, meaning that more water could be released downstream to sustain wildlife amid drought.

One of Florida’s central arguments in the long-running legal battle over water rights is that metro Atlanta drains too much water supply, drying up downstream flow and endangering aquatic species. The ability to release more water downstream and quench threatened species could prove valuable during the next drought — or the next round of legal fights.

Gov. Nathan Deal has embraced a strategy that seeks to shift more control of the state’s water away from the federal government, which regulates water releases from Georgia’s main waterways. By reining in water withdrawals and allowing state officials to increase the flow down the southwest Georgia stream, S.B. 213 would offer a novel way to do that.

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“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,” said Deal.

Yet environmental groups see an opening that would allow developers — and not the family farms that dot the region — to build a network of pumps that could store water in underground aquifers and siphon water downstream during drought. They worry about language that clears the way for the state to “augment” water flow along the delicate basin.

Deal and his allies waded deep into the debate last week. Just a day after green groups backed a scaled-back alternative to S.B. 213, Deal used a speech at a water policy conference to insist on the more sweeping proposal that already passed the Senate.

“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.”

Georgia has been locked in a testy legal fight with Alabama and Florida for more than two decades. After Florida’s governor asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene last year, talks between the three states unraveled.

Georgia environmental groups have backed House Bill 1085, introduced last week by state Rep. Delvis Dutton, R-Glennville. Drawn up by a bipartisan coalition of legislators, the bill gives state regulators the ability to scale back water withdrawals during droughts, but doesn’t give the state broad new powers to add water to rivers.

They pitch it as a better way to protect downstream wildlife while safeguarding property rights.

“Allowing the appropriation and state control of water, and not allowing downstream property owners the right to reasonable use of it, radically diminishes that property right,” said Chris Manganiello of the Georgia Rivers Network.

Another part of the proposal gives the director of the state Environmental Protection Division the power, in essence, to pick who gets the water. That would give the state unprecedented new powers, said Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers.

“Even if you don’t care about water rights, you ought to be concerned about that kind of attack on due process,” he said.

Deal and other supporters of the broader bill say the fears of a subversive plot to appease Florida are unfounded. Judson Turner, who heads EPD, said the criticism amounts to “white noise.” And Deal has said it’s not linked to any effort to build a broader pumping network.

“This is very important to us,” said Richard Royal, a former state legislator who chairs a southwest Georgia river planning council. “This is a tool that we can use to signal to both Florida and Alabama that we are serious about our water. I don’t buy the argument from environmentalists at all. They are scare tactics.”

They also note that Georgia, which wilted under drought as recently as 2012, needs to prepare for the next extreme dry spell. Such was the thinking when the EPD’s Russ Pennington testified last week against a continued ban on the use of what’s officially called “aquifer storage and recovery” for nearly a dozen coastal counties.

“There are no imminent plans or projects on the horizon” for coastal Georgia, Pennington said. “But that being said, the Coastal Georgia regional water council [and others] all identified aquifer storage and recovery” as another way to capture and release water as the region develops.

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