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09/27/00 - The future of Georgia is resting in the state's riverbeds


Athens Newspapers   September 27, 2000
Shipp: The future of Georgia is resting in the state's riverbeds

It's not like George W. Bush buying a television spot in which ''RATS'' is flashed across the screen. Or Congressman Bob Barr portraying his opponent as a man who constantly falls off horses. Or even Democratic Sen. Zell Miller promising citizens he'll vote just like a Republican if they want him to.


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 As a news story, the problem has none of the sex appeal or excitement of a live-wire political campaign. Perhaps that's why you don't see many candidates even bothering to discuss it.
   But water -- more than education enhancement, health-care reform or even improved transportation -- may turn out to be the issue that defines the lives of Georgians for the next 10 years.
   Every section of the state is approaching a water emergency of some kind, from saltwater intrusion in southeast Georgia to drought and plain waste in other areas of the state.
   Gov. Roy Barnes has made water conservation the centerpiece of his legislative agenda for 2001.
   The changes to come are not likely to get the populace as riled as education reform or cause such a stir among business leaders as his insurance law amendments.
   But, ready or not, as Georgia battles a serious water crisis on several fronts, action time can be delayed no longer.
   -- A federal district judge, Marvin Shoob, is breathing down the state's neck to force it to list the most polluted streams and lakes in the state. If the state tarries too long (and there is evidence that it might), the state Environmental Protection Division may lose to the feds what little authority it has to regulate Georgia's water quality.
   -- The patience of Alabama and Florida must be wearing thin, as those two states have tried for years to negotiate an interstate water compact with Georgia that would reduce our state's water consumption -- and slow down our rate of growth. If no agreement is reached soon, a lawsuit against Georgia is certain to wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court. And the betting here is that Georgia will be the loser.
   -- A 37-member Clean Water Initiative Task Force, composed of business executives, environmentalists and government representatives, has undertaken the monumental task of proposing a regional water authority to ride hard on wastewater and storm drainage.
   Sounds like a swell idea, right? But controlling water consumption is like upgrading schools; the devil is in the details. Who will run a new state authority? Will the new agency usurp the present powers of local governments in the all-important economic area of controlling wastewater discharges? If you thought the battle over creation of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority was mean and angry, just wait.
   However, let's suppose that in the end our state government follows its years-long tradition in the water debate -- and does nothing.
   If nothing -- or next to nothing -- occurs in the courts or the legislature, here's Georgia's near future:
   Growth in North Georgia will grind to a halt. And over-consumption of water in parts of South Georgia may leave once-mighty rivers such as the Flint as little more than polluted creeks.
   These catastrophes will not occur 10 or 20 years from now -- but within the next five years.
   Unless drastic water conservation measures are adopted quickly, the capacity of North Georgia's streams and rivers to handle waste from local governments and industries will be exceeded by 2006
-- if the population continues to expand at its present rate.
   That means no more sewer taps, no more new subdivisions, no new industries. The fuss over sprawl and traffic congestion will be settled.
   Even without additional drought conditions, we will have reached our outer limits in water consumption. Georgia's economic boom will belly-flop onto a pollution-caked river bottom.
   Bill Shipp is editor of Bill Shipp's Georgia, a weekly newsletter on government and business. Send mail to P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30144 or e-mail: bshipp@bellsouth.net.