ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal endorsed a plan Wednesday that would allow environmental officials to restrict farmers from taking water from the Flint River basin during droughts, though opponents say that legal power could be used to send more water to Florida and are backing a different plan.
In a speech, Deal gave personal support to legislation allowing the Environmental Protection Division to stop farmers in the region from taking water if state authorities put it into waterways to prevent wildlife from perishing during droughts. Those restrictions would stay in place while farmers appealed such an order.
The Republican governor said that authority is needed to prevent federal environmental officials from imposing even tougher restrictions on water use if a drought threatens wildlife.
"The greatest thing that could put Georgia farmers' water use at significant risk is an EPD unable to respond in such a common-sense way for fear of having to litigate" the state-imposed water restrictions, Deal told a gathering of water officials.
Opponents are worried that the bill isn't really about protecting wildlife. Instead, they think it's an attempt to allow developers to build expensive infrastructure capable of getting more water to Florida that could help ease a long-running water dispute with that state. Florida has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to divide up water rights because it claims that Georgia uses too much water upstream, harming downstream wildlife and communities.
A team of lobbyists and developers previously sought state funding to test whether pumps could store water in underground aquifers when waterways are flush, then pump it to the surface during droughts. The lobbyists proposed that if such a system could guarantee more water would flow south and reach Florida, Georgia could seek the release of more water from Lake Lanier for the use of metro Atlanta and to improve downstream water quality.
Supporters of that water-swapping plan said Georgia's government would need a way to prevent people from using the extra water before it reached Florida.
The developer and lobbyists who backed the original pumping plan have since left the project. Deal's administration is proceeding with a scaled-back test to determine whether the technology works. Deal said Wednesday that the legislation he supported was not connected to the proposal for a pumping network.
Environmental groups critical of the bill are supporting a rival bill from state Rep. Delvis Dutton, R-Glennville. The last-minute legislation would allow state officials to scale back water withdrawals, but contains no mention about projects that add water to local streams.
Chris Manganiello, policy director for the Georgia River Network, said he believed that Deal's administration wants to preserve the option of pursuing the pumping plan if the technology works, even if the original proposal from lobbyists did not win immediate financial or political support.
"It's a long-term game," he said.
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