ATLANTA - Georgia's government may seek to tap into the water that is captured when it invests in local reservoirs or wells, potentially giving officials more leverage when dealing with regional needs like drought or negotiating a multi-state water dispute.
The new guidelines put forward by Gov. Nathan Deal's water supply program govern how state government allocates investment money to water supply projects proposed by local governments or agencies. State officials are considering how to award roughly $44 million for such projects.
Under the new rules, project applications will get a better chance of earning state money if they give Georgia's government a chance to tap into water flows to meet significant state needs, for example, mitigating drought conditions, protecting water quality or endangered species, or supplementing low-flowing streams and rivers. Historically, state water funding has helped local communities meet local water needs, not statewide or regional purposes.
Judson Turner, director of Georgia's Environmental Protection Division, said new reservoirs and wells should be designed to meet as many needs as possible since building the infrastructure is costly and only so many reservoirs can be placed on the land.
``The great irony of all of this is that people bristle at the thought of building reservoirs, but everyone knows that in order to share in times of drought, the bank account needs to be a as big as it can be,'' Turner said. He compared reservoirs and wells to a bank account that can be filled when rain is flush.
While not a cure-all, securing access to more water may give state government more bargaining chips as it negotiates long-running water disputes with neighboring Alabama and Florida. Leaders in both states accuse North Georgia of taking too much water, leaving too little for wildlife, people and industry further downstream.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently accused Georgia of depleting water flows into the Apalachicola River and the Gulf of Mexico, harming the state's oyster fishery. Scott said Florida will file a lawsuit this month asking that the U.S. Supreme Court determine a way for the states to equitably share water.
Georgia officials say new reservoirs could allow the state to release water into depleted rivers shared with neighboring states during periods of drought, a view not necessarily shared by the state's neighbors. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has said he fears the development of new Georgia reservoirs may further restrict water flows into his state.
Under the old financing system, the investment funding offered by Georgia acted more like a loan with a big end payment for the borrower. In return for accepting the state's investment, Georgia's state government received real estate or an ownership stake in a local water supply project. At the end of a negotiated period, likely several decades, the local partner would have to buy out the state, allowing Georgia to recoup its money.
The new system would allow local agencies developing water infrastructure to repay Georgia's government by giving it access to water instead of paying cash.
``We want to have access to some of that yield or flow,'' said Kevin Clark, executive director of the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, which administers the funding.