ATLANTA - As Gov. Sonny Perdue seeks a tri-state compromise to solve Georgia's water woes and a federal judge weighs whether metro-Atlanta should have access to its most critical water source, state lawmakers are debating conservation as part of the solution to a looming water crisis.
The House Natural Resources and Environment Committee unanimously passed the Georgia Water Stewardship Act of 2010, which supporters say will reduce waste and include incentives to increase water supply and decrease demand. If approved, many of the measures would take effect in July 2012 - coinciding with the date a federal judge has set for Georgia, Alabama and Florida to reach a compromise on the states' long-standing stalemate over water use.
Georgia has been embroiled in a decades-long fight with its neighbors over rights to the Chattahoochee River and several other watersheds.
Perdue is in talks with Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and has vowed to resolve the conflict before all three leaders leave office at the end of the year.
Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City called the bill good policy, but acknowledged that the recent drought and federal ruling have driven home the importance of water as a natural resource in Georgia and the need for state lawmakers to do what they can.
"This is largely out of the hands of the General Assembly," said Ramsey, one of the bill's sponsors. "But if an agreement is not reached and we need an extension on the judge's ruling, we'll be able to show that we haven't sat on our hands."
Rep. Lynn Smith of Newnan, chairwoman of the committee, said Tuesday that there was some concern that some of the measures would take effect so close to the judge's deadline, but she praised the bill overall.
"We have, as a state, realized the seriousness of this issue," she said.
The legislation is based on recommendations from the Governor's Water Contingency Task Force, a group of more than 80 business, government and environmental leaders from around the state that met in the fall and winter.
The task force was created to look at whether Georgia could go it alone if both the tri-state negotiations and legal efforts fail. A federal judge has said Georgia has little right to withdraw water from Lake Lanier, which task force leaders said is still the most economically and environmentally logical choice for metro Atlanta's water supply. Without it, meeting the region's needs could become costly.
The proposal also allows residential watering from 4 p.m. to 10 a.m., to minimize water loss from evaporation. Among the other proposals in the bill:
- Installing efficient water fixtures and water monitors - called sub-meters - in all new residential and commercial construction in Georgia and the installation of efficient cooling towers in new industrial construction.
- Requiring state agencies look at local government and water provider grant and loan programs to create incentives for retrofitting older buildings with more water-efficient fixtures, installing drought-resistant landscapes or reusing the wastewater generated by laundry, dishwashing and other domestic activities.
- Setting standards at the state's Environmental Protection Division for water loss and leak detection for all medium and large public water systems to identify where the biggest losses are.
- Extending the voluntary agriculture monitoring program to include surface water withdrawals.
The measure now heads to the House for a full vote.