Ten regional councils formed two years ago to plan for long-term use of water resources in Georgia have received a three-month extension for completing their preliminary regional plans.
The Coastal Region, which includes Bulloch and eight other counties, did not need the extension through April and will still have its plan nearly complete this month, said the regional council's chair, Statesboro's Benjy Thompson. However, the Coastal council had pointed out to state officials that its plan could be subject to change because of continuing negotiations with South Carolina over saltwater intrusion into well water.
"Speaking for our council, we're planning to stick pretty closely to the original deadline, just because we were prepared to that point anyway," Thompson said Tuesday.
With detailed information from the state, the regional councils have looked at ground and surface water resources on one hand and predicted usage on the other in an attempt to see how these will balance through 2050.
A law passed in 2004 called for a State Water Plan, and that plan, when approved by the Legislature in 2008, called for 10 regional councils to create more detailed water plans of their own. An 11th regional council, Metro-North Georgia, was established under separate legislation in 2001 and is already in its second round of planning.
Originally, the 10 new councils were given until Jan. 31 to submit an "initial recommended regional water plan" to the state Environmental Protection Division. The EPD was then slated to make the regional plans available for public comment, after which they would be revised for the EPD's final adoption by June 30.
However, some regions asked for more time, said Nap Caldwell, senior planning and policy advisor in the EPD's Water Protection Branch. The EPD then extended the deadline through April. A memo from the EPD director to the regional councils in December said they should submit the initial plans by May 2. The division now plans to publish the plans for the 45-day public comment period beginning May 9.
"Some of these regions probably won't need or won't take until the end of April to submit their drafts, but ... even if some make their submissions several weeks before the end of April, we will probably elect to make them all available for public comment in early May, at one time," Caldwell said.
The plans will be posted on the website www.georgiawaterplanning.org and printed copies will be made available through the regional councils, he said. The new deadline for the EPD to modify and adopt the plans is Sept. 30.
While the Coastal Regional Water Planning Council did not ask for more time, Thompson informed the EPD that the region's initial plan could be subject to change in the near future.
"With their situation with saltwater intrusion in South Carolina, there are some things going between the two states that, we've been told, there will be some movement on over the next few months," Thompson said.
Saltwater intrusion has been noted in wells in the Hilton Head, S.C. area since the 1980s. This led to previous EPD restrictions on new wells and pumping in the Savannah area. A separate committee of interested parties from both states is now working on long-term solutions, and the regional council asked EPD for permission to "bookmark" certain parts of its plan for revision depending on the outcome of the two-state talks.
The saltwater intrusion concerns point to a groundwater "gap" with demand outpacing supply by 2050 in the more coastal parts of the district, such as Chatham and Liberty counties and the southern portions of Effingham and Bryan counties, Thompson said.
The Coastal council has talked about management practices that may be implemented if that happens.
Meanwhile, the neighboring Altamaha Region, which includes Candler, Evans and 14 other counties, has a special concern with surface water gaps on portions of the Canoochee and Satilla rivers.
In drought years, the upper course of the Canoochee has sometimes completely stopped .flowing. This has been the topic of much discussion on the Altamaha Regional Water Council, said Gary Bell, an Evans County farmer who serves on it.
"They said that had to be addressed, that one way or another we had to come up with a plan to eliminate that gap. Nobody has a plan," Bell said. "All this stuff has been tossed up for maybe a solution."
The Coastal region may be part of an answer to the Canoochee's problem, Thompson said. One idea that has been discussed is to encourage farmers to shift from surface water to ground water for irrigation.
Thompson admits that seems like a contradiction in light of the groundwater gap, but he says the groundwater problem is mainly limited to coastal areas where there isn't much agriculture. It also remains to be seen whether agricultural use really drives the Canoochee's flow problems, he said.
Surface water streams and groundwater aquifers both cross regional boundaries, so the councils' plans cannot work in isolation.
"They've all got to work together," Bell said. "That's what is going to be kind of hard. We can't come up with some ridiculous requirements that we're going to try here when the Coastal District or one north of us is going to do something different."
Part of the EPD's role will be making the plans mesh. The regional councils have no enforcement authority, but Caldwell said their plans will guide the EPD in issuing permits.
For the near future, regional water councils will be recommending conservation measures, such as encouraging farmers to switch from high-pressure to low-pressure irrigation, insisting that golf courses reuse water, encouraging or requiring the use of low-flow toilets and shower heads on city water systems, and increasing audits of industrial water use.
"In terms of how the plan directly impacts municipalities, industries, those kinds of things today, there's really not that much of an impact, except that we're going to have management practices in place in case a gap does get created," Thompson said.
Thompson, who was previously Ogeechee Technical College's vice president of economic development, started a new job in November as CEO of the Development Authority of Bulloch County and the Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce but will continue to chair the Coastal Regional Water Council, an unpaid post. He also served previously as director of Georgia Southern University's Water Planning and Policy Center.
The regional council has 25 members from cities, counties, nongovernmental agencies, industries and agriculture.
Unlike previous conversations about water which were dominated by the EPD, the current planning really is locally led, according to Thompson.
"To me this has been much more locally oriented. There's been much more input from people who will live with the decisions, and I believe we've looked as a group at a wider range of inputs than we ever have before," he said.