ATLANTA — Despite recent steady rains in Georgia, House lawmakers have not forgotten the state is in a record drought as they passed two water management bills Tuesday.
One measure would speed construction of reservoirs to hold back more of the precious rainfall in the future, and the other would prohibit local governments and utilities from imposing outdoor water use restrictions more stringent than the state requires.
The water restrictions bill, which passed 124-38, was introduced after the Environmental Protection Division and Gov. Sonny Perdue eased restrictions on outdoor watering and filling swimming pools in the 61 North Georgia counties designated as being in exceptional drought.
Some local governments, including Dalton, had kept the tougher water use restrictions in place to conserve water and make sure they met Gov. Perdue’s mandate for utilities to cut water use by 10 percent from last year.
Local governments and utilities would only be able to have outdoor watering restrictions that differ from the state’s — either more stringent or more lax — if they receive approval from the EPD, which has three days to respond to a request.
The legislation’s sponsor, Rep. Terry England, RAuburn, said the bill would keep local governments from arbitrarily making restrictions too stringent, when he said the swimming pool and socalled “green” industries have suffered the loss of $8 billion in business and 35,000 jobs because of the drought.
But Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton, questioned how the measure would affect the carpet industry, which he said reduced its water usage by 10 percent more than the state mandated.
“It’s a move to save water for a vital industry,” Rep. Williams said about Dalton keeping the strict rules, before he voted in favor of the bill. “If we wait around for the EPD, wouldn’t it be unwieldly?”
Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, said to force local governments to qualify tougher restrictions “makes a lot of sense.” And he called “crucial” allowing areas like much of his district, which receives water from the relatively abundant Tennessee River, to ask for exemptions from outdoor watering restrictions.
“It’s something we absolutely had to do,” Rep. Neal said.
Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, D-Menlo, said she voted against the bill because she was concerned about the loss of local control.
“While I certainly can have sympathy for the plight of green industry and the swimming pool industry, we still have the carpet industry and textile industry in North Georgia,” Rep. Reece said.
“When a local water system is mandated a 10 percent reduction... I don’t want the state to make the decision on what to restrict,” she said.
Rep. Reece also had concerns about the reservoir bill, which passed the House by a vote of 166-3. She said she almost voted against it before changing her mind at the last minute.
The lengthy legislation would set up a “Water Supply Division” within the Department of Natural Resources to manage and expedite state and local permitting of reservoirs, and to oversee a fund that would provide low-interest loans to local governments and utilities interested in building reservoirs or upgrading sewer infrastructure.
The bill was re-worked in committee last week, and a provision to severely restrict interbasin water transfer permits was added to make the legislation more agreeable. Some lawmakers were concerned the new reservoirs would be used to supply water for use outside their watersheds — and some lawmakers are nervous about interbasin transfers in general.
“I went with it for the interbasin transfer revision,” Rep. Reece said. “I still have questions about the cost. ... I think we could do a lot more on conserving water.”
She said she thinks her district will most likely be interested in the low-interest loans provided for areas to upgrade homes from septic tanks to sewer systems so the water can return to the basin.
The legislation also includes income tax credits for residents who choose to buy water conserving, low-flow plumbing.