Georgia lawmakers pass water legislation

A water-planning bill recently agreed upon by Georgia House and Senate leaders gives state legislators a say in any statewide plan to divvy up rivers and underground aquifers among cities, farmers and industries.

House Bill 237, a controversial holdover from last year, had been stalled since early in the General Assembly’s regular session over whether lawmakers would get a say in the state’s water plan. The Republican-controlled senate was content to leave the plan in the hands of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s appointees while the Democat-controlled House demanded an up-or-down vote.

The compromise reached in a conference committee meeting gives legislators a vote, but the water plan doesn’t hinge on their approval.

The compromise states that the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, with oversight from a water council of state agency heads and legislative appointees, would come up with a plan by July 1, 2007. The council would present it to the General Assembly no later than January 2008.

If both the House and the Senate approve it, the plan would go into effect. If not, the council could submit a revised plan up until the halfway mark of the session. After that, legislators could come up with their own plan.

If legislators don’t pass that plan, the last version submitted by the water council would go into effect by default on July 1, 2008.

The biggest loser in the latest version of a state water-planning bill would appear to be the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which was left out completely. In past versions, the board — composed of gubernatorial appointees — had an up-or-down vote. Gov. Perdue, whose office worked on the bill, approved the compromise.

Staying true to his word, the bill’s author, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bob Hanner (D-Parrott), did not reinsert language this session to allow farmers to sell their water withdrawal permits — the most controversial and debated component of House Bill 237 last year.

The Senate version of the budget that begins on July 1 provides $400,000 to get started on the water plan. Perdue originally recommended $500,000 while the House recommended zero.

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