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SB 213’s Passage

March 18, 2014

SB 213 – which revised the Flint River Drought Protection Act (2000) and now awaits the Governor’s signature – will now provide exactly what the bill’s sponsors and the Environmental Protection Division have said they have desired for almost two years: the ability to protect augmented flows in order to protect vulnerable aquatic life in specific areas of the Flint River basin.  And, as the AJC noted, the bill is a “far cry” from what was originally introduced.  What the sponsors – and even Georgia’s Governor – have said for months and what was written in the bill were two different things.

This incongruence – between the spoken and written word – is why SB 213 slogged its way through the legislative process.  Why else would a bill be recommitted to committee in the final minutes on Day 40 of the 2013 General Assembly’s session?  And in 2014, why would the bill get sent back for committee tinkering three more times in five weeks before getting amended again on the House floor on Day 37?  A vast majority of House members realized the legislation was overly broad and enabled the state to own water – changing water law and diminishing property rights.  But the real reason for the slog: SB 213 did not have the votes to pass the House until it was fixed.

When SB 213 was introduced in 2013, the bill was broad in scope and scale.  The bill’s stated intent – in spoken and written word – was to revise a broken piece of legislation that included a non-functional voluntary auction.  The bill included other good intentions such as targets for agricultural irrigation efficiency.  And there was much talk – but little in the bill – about protecting farmers from “EPA” lawsuits over endangered species.  Finally, the bill’s geographic limitation was defined as a generalized “Flint River basin.”  Perhaps more important, “augmentation” was not initially defined at all in the bill.

What none of the SB 213’s cheerleaders wanted to admit publically for almost two years, was SB 213’s connection to a “water exchange.”  In 2012, the Governor’s Water Supply Program funneled $4.6M to a proposed aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) project in the Flint River basin.  That scheme, originally projected to cost Metro rate-payers $1.2 BILLION to build and $100 million a year to operate, is now moving forward as a $5M “Pilot Project.”  The original plan was to provide 250 million gallons from the Flint River basin per day to Florida that would otherwise have had to come from Lake Lanier, while drying the Chattahoochee south of Atlanta.  Until March 12, 2014, SB 213 would have provided statutory protection for this expensive scheme while changing Georgia water law.  SB 213 could have been the massive ASR project’s legislative side-car, making it a tool in Georgia’s tri-state water war tool box.

On the same day the Governor endorsed SB 213 as one solution for the tri-state water war at the Georgia Water Summit, a bi-partisan coalition introduced an alternative bill (HB 1085) with 37 co-sponsors that protected Georgia farmers from Endangered Species Act law suits.  HB 1085 died in a hearing-only (non-voting) committee meeting the following day.  SB 213 opponents again offered another amendment that linked augmentation specifically to Endangered Species Act protections, but the bill’s sponsors rejected the provision.  In this course of events, SB 213’s proponents signaled they were more interested in sending large volumes of water to benefit Florida’s oysters, which are not endangered, than protecting Georgia’s threatened and endangered wildlife, farmers and property owners.

But in the final push on Day 37 (2014) – a formidable coalition of House members successfully narrowed the bill.  SB 213 still allows the EPD director to prohibit certain permittees from withdrawing water downstream of an augmentation project, however we now have a definition of what an augmentation project is for. Furthermore, augmentation projects are limited to a specific area in the lower Flint River basin for the sole purpose of maintaining minimum stream flows sufficient to protect habitat critical for vulnerable aquatic life.  These types of projects will not produce the massive quantities of water originally protected by SB 213.  As defined, augmentation will benefit vulnerable aquatic wildlife in Georgia, as is already happening in Spring Creek.

SB 213 now reads as it was sold.  And for that, all Georgians should be thankful.

-Chris Manganiello

 

 

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