The issue of “interbasin transfers,” artificially routing water from one natural river system to another, is back (not that it ever really went away) with some new twists that are raising quite a few eyebrows, and more than a few questions that demand straight answers.
The familiar rationale for interbasin transfers is drought relief: A basin that supposedly has more than ample water shares it with a basin that doesn’t, usually for domestic, commercial and industrial consumption. For obvious reasons, that practice has never sat well with most environmental organizations.
But now the issue is being framed in environmental terms: interbasin water transfers to mitigate drought effects, including effects on endangered species.
The fine print, according to a Monday story by Morris News Service, involves a state policy change for distributing grant money for water projects. And it’s a change relatively few people know about.
This part most Georgians know: Gov. Nathan Deal started a program two years ago to provide money to local governments that wanted to create wells or reservoirs for water supply. The original conditions for that funding, Morris reported, called for the state to acquire and hold the affected land for the duration of the bond issue that paid for the project, at which time the local government(s) had to buy the land from the state.
But that cost is prohibitive for some, perhaps most, cash-strapped local governments, so the new rule gives the state access to the water in lieu of a land buyout.
How much access, for how much water? Well, that’s a “case-by-case” determination, according to a spokesman for the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority.
Local governments and environmental activists are at odds on some issues, but they share a healthy skepticism about this one.
Tom Gehl of the Georgia Municipal Association told Morris reporter Walter C. Jones that local governments should be “very careful about how it might impact our local service agreements to our own customers” if state water demand from one of these projects supersedes local needs.
Georgia River Network Director April Ingle isn’t buying either the environmental protection or public benefit argument. Ingle said this is about the “pet projects” of private developers with political clout who are lobbying for unnecessary and environmentally damaging artificial reservoirs so they can cash in on newly created waterfront property.
With the first grants scheduled to be awarded Nov. 6, this looks like a done deal before most of us know just what the deal is — or who the dealers are. Georgians deserve some real answers, and unfortunately haven’t even been given the chance to think about what might be the most important questions.