Water plan eyes swap to offset pollutants

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. -- The group in charge of planning the future of water in North Georgia has proposed a system of credits and debits based on water pollution that the council hopes will translate going green into greenbacks for industries in the region.

The Coosa-North Georgia Water Planning Council included a system of "water quality credit trading" in the first draft of its water plan, initially presented Nov. 17 in Blue Ridge. The system, as explained by council members and state consultants, would allow utilities and industries that discharge below maximum levels of nutrients or other pollutants into area streams to sell credits to dischargers who are above the limit.

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The credits would represent the gap between the low-discharge operations and the threshold, giving dischargers an incentive to cut their levels of discharge, according to officials.

Similar systems of credits for output levels have been common with air pollution for years.

In addition to raising questions about water supply, the prolonged drought of 2006, 2007 and 2008 also led water planners to look at water quality. Low lake and stream levels magnify the impact of many pollutants, according to experts, because the substances cannot be diluted as quickly or as easily as in normal or high flows.

Doug Baughman, one of the consultants for the state leading the council meetings, called the system a "market-based approach" to solving water quality issues.

The system also would put a dollar value on pollutant levels for over-the-limit firms which, in theory, would make them consider reducing their output.

"All of the ingredients to make this work are there," said water council member Lee Mulkey, a Habersham County commissioner.

The draft of the plan indicates the credit trading system would begin with a pilot study some time between 2013 and 2017, then go statewide, depending on results.

Under the plan, the system would be implemented by the state Legislature, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, local governments and industry and utility companies.

Baughman said the system would be a first in Georgia. What's unique is the provision for industries to work with other occupants along the streams to improve water quality.

Water planners said the idea is unconventional but could be an important incentive going forward.

"We don't need to leave anything off the table," Don Cope, CEO of Dalton Utilities, said in an interview last week.

He said he would approve of the credit system as a council member but was unsure whether the system would be approved by state officials into the final plan.

"It's like all of the issues; it's much bigger than one individual, it's much bigger than any particular jurisdiction," he said. "It's a regional idea."

Scott McBride, president of the Coosawattee Watershed Alliance, said the system "sounds good, but there are still some things that are undecided."

McBride wanted to know more about how officials would set the water-quality thresholds, but he lauded the group for heading in the right direction.

"The good thing about this is they're thinking out of the box," he said.