Local officials and conservation advocates are watching to see if Gov. Sonny Perdue will join them in opposing a water restrictions bill that got the approval of the House and Senate.
If Gov. Perdue signs it into law, though, House Bill 1281 would take away local authority to set outdoor watering restrictions that are more strict than the state rules.
“The main thing we are concerned about is that it basically tied local governments’ hands,” said Jennette Gayer, policy spokeswoman for Environment Georgia, a citizen-based, nonpartisan environmental advocacy group.
In February Gov. Perdue relaxed outdoor watering restraints that had been placed on the 61 North Georgia counties classified as being in exceptional drought — the most severe rating.
Gov. Perdue said then that local water authorities would be able to keep tighter restrictions on outdoor water usage if they needed.
Some are worried now that may not remain the case.
“We are a little concerned that it is a done deal,” Ms. Gayer said.
Many local officials said state lawmakers are sending mixed signals about water restrictions and usage regulations.
Still in effect is the requirement that local governments reduce their water consumption by 10 percent from the same period a year earlier, but if the governor signs H.B. 1281, they will have no power to tighten restrictions as needed to meet that mandate.
“I must be on drugs because I’m having a hard time understanding,” Walker County Coordinator David Ashburn said about the conflicting laws. He called it the “proverbial Catch 22.” Not all Northwest Georgia legislators supported the law. Sen. Don Thomas, R-Dalton, said he voted against the legislation because he supports local control on this issue, especially since Dalton Water Utilities is cutting water use by double the 10 percent Gov. Perdue called for last fall.
“The local utilities should have more control over the water,” Sen. Thomas said. “If they want to restrict outdoor watering, they should be able to do that. If they have plenty of water, they should be able to release more.”
But sponsor of the legislation Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, said the bill would keep local governments from arbitrarily making restrictions too stringent.
He said overly strict regulations can hurt those in the swimming pool and landscaping industries, which combined have suffered losses of some $8 billion and 35,000 jobs because of the drought, Rep. England said.
Roderick Bowman, operations manager of Landscapes Northwest in Calhoun, said his industry has been hit severely by the drought and watering restrictions that for months included a total outdoor watering ban.
“People are afraid to plant because they are afraid they won’t be able to water,” Mr. Bowman said.
He said he understands that his industry is the easiest to restrict on water usage and that it is high-profile because people see the use of water when irrigating or sprinkling outdoor plants or lawns.
But Mr. Bowman said he will be happy if more strict restrictions are not allowed.
“What the state has mandated is something we can live with,” he said.
Some local government and utility officials are not happy, especially those like much of Catoosa County that has ample water supply or buys Tennessee-American Water Co. water from the Tennessee River.
“There is no way we can curtail water use by 10 percent with outside watering being permitted for gardens and landscaping,” Catoosa Utility District Chairman Jerry Lee said.
Since the Catoosa Utility District and Fort Oglethorpe can get water from other sources, such as Tennessee-American Water Co., they are asking for an exemption from the 10 percent reduction mandate. Mr. Lee expects that his county will be removed by mid-April.
Mr. Ashburn said the fact that some Northwest Georgia cities don’t need Georgia water makes even more frustrating the loss of local control and restrictions in general.
“We are in the Tennessee River Basin,” Mr. Ashburn said. “We shouldn’t be restricted at all.”
Chickamauga City and Utilities Manager John Culpepper added that everything in Georgia seems to revolve around Atlanta.
“Nobody knows my system better than I do,” he said, noting he has managed the water system for more than 20 years.
“Someone in Atlanta doesn’t know my water system.”
Staff writers Ronnie Moore, Erin Fuchs and Lori Yount contributed to this article.
HOW THEY VOTED
Voting “Yes” were:
Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga Rep. Ron Forster, R-Ringgold Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette Rep. Martin Scott, R-Rossville Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton
Voting “No” were:
Sen. Preston Smith, R-Rome Sen. Don Thomas, R-Dalton Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, D-Menlo
Excused (not voting)
Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun
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