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10/10/00 - Georgia cities back a team approach to water problem


Atlanta Business Chronicle


From the November 10, 2000 print edition


Georgia cities back a team approach to water problem

Jim Calvin

At first glance, it might appear that local governments took it on the chin in a proposal for regional water management that was recently unveiled by a group of civic leaders. If the governor and the General Assembly accept the proposals of the Metro Atlanta Clean Water Initiative task force and create a 16-county water planning district in the metro region, then the autonomy and discretion of local governments will have seemingly been diminished. Instead of being able to act independently in managing wastewater and stormwater, local governments will have to work with the folks next door, and even with the state.

The Clean Water Initiative task force's proposal has even been billed as "big bidness" versus "local gummint," with local government, of course, getting the short end of the stick. And this on the heels of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, which in the hyperbole of some pundits has been characterized as a state-sanctioned raid on the autonomy of local governments.

There's just one thing wrong with this scenario: It's dead wrong. Local governments, working through the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA), the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) and the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), have been enthusiastic backers of a regional "team" approach to managing our crucial water resources.

In fact, the main elements in the Clean Water Initiative task force plan were hatched by representatives of local government. Moreover, in a December 1999 report, the ACCG-GMA Joint Task Force on Water Resource Policy set five goals for managing Georgia water resources:

Ø      To establish a comprehensive and coordinated statewide water management strategy.

Ø      To create a state office, but not a new bureaucracy, that would articulate state water policy, plan development of water resources, coordinate state agencies and encourage regional approaches to managing water.

Ø      To set up a statewide, centralized system for assembling reliable water-related information and data on a watershed basis.

Ø      To use state grants, loans and permits as incentives for local governments to engage in regional, coordinated approaches to water management.

Ø      To put in place state and local land-use policies that protect and enhance our water resources.

What emerged from the Clean Water Initiative Task Force addresses most of these goals, as well as the actual proposals proffered by the GMA-ACCG-ARC coalition. The proposals call for regional planning, a $ billion bond fund, a coordinated information database and a review of existing land-use plans and ordinances to develop regionally consistent policies.

"Water does not recognize jurisdictional boundaries," we wrote in the 1999 report aptly titled "A Call for Action." "To better address water realities, a broader, multijurisdictional perspective is necessary that will enable us to manage our water resources on a regional and watershed basis."

So enthusiastic have local governments been in support of the program that the 16th county in the Clean Water Initiative plan, Bartow, came forward and asked to be included.

So instead of fighting the plan to preserve "local autonomy" and "turf," most local governments are in favor of banding together to address our region's water-quality needs. Furthermore, while the plan recognizes the authority vested in local governments and the experience they have in managing water issues by providing them majority representation, it also provides for meaningful input through significant citizen representation.

Of course, not every aspect of the Clean Water Initiative proposal meets with absolute local approval, and not every local official endorses every single detail of this plan. But that is also true of environmentalists, business people and others who participated on the task force. No single group or individual walked away with everything they wanted. The proposal that emerged represented some give and take on the part of all parties.

However, in the main, the potential benefits coming out of this effort far outweigh the minor differences and clarifications supporters will have an opportunity to address as the recommendations move forward. In fact, GMA has officially endorsed the Clean Water Initiative plan. We think it's a responsible approach to water management for metro Atlanta. And its emphasis on regional planning and coordination represents a model that can be duplicated in watersheds across the state.

Our support for this plan shows that Georgia's cities have the vision to see beyond local, parochial interests. It shows they're in favor of working closely with the state, and with neighboring cities and counties, to help improve and conserve one of our most precious resources. At bottom, we're for improving the quality of water for citizens in metro Atlanta and around the state. And that goal will win out every time over local "autonomy."

Calvin is executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association.