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Tom Baxter

As water becomes more precious, a battle for control of the faucet

By Tom Baxter

You might say the politics of water is very fluid these days. There seems to be a gathering sense, here and elsewhere, that water policy is no longer as simple a matter as turning on a faucet. But the battle over who exactly controls this increasingly precious resource is still in its early stages.

In this year’s legislative session, that battle has centered around Senate Bill 213, Gov. Nathan Deal’s attempt to gain unprecedented power over the faucet in the Flint River basin. The bill would give the state the power to tell farmers when they could withdraw water from the basin, but what makes it controversial are the provisions which would give the state the additional power to “augment” the river’s flow with a stored supply of water in times of drought to protect endangered wetland species downstream.

Those would be the endangered species to which the state of Florida referred in the lawsuit it filed with the U.S. Supreme Court last October. SB 213 is being pitched by supporters as a means to give the state power the power to turn up the faucet to meet Florida’s needs in a drought, so the feds don’t step in and do it for us.

Opponents view the bill as less about the fragile bivalves to the south and more about the state’s desire to store and pump the water from the basin as it wishes. An attempt to enact a pilot program to study the feasibility of an elaborate reservoir system in the basin was thwarted last year, and opponents see this bill as another attempt at the same scheme.

A rival House bill that would have sanctioned the conservation but not the augmentation of water from the basin appears to be dead for the year, but the Senate bill now resides in the House Agriculture Committee, where it could be subject to some augmentation of its own.

Interestingly, the House bill challenging Deal’s designs on the basin was introduced by state Rep. Delvis Dutton, a Glennville Republican who was heavily recruited to get in the race to unseat U.S. Rep. John Barrow, despite the announced presence of two other Republicans.

Dutton also owns a well-drilling company, and his reluctance to give the state total control of the water supply is in line with many southwest Georgia farmers, as well as environmentalists. This is yet another of those issues that has produced strange bedfellows, and might produce some interesting enemies.

Meanwhile, according to a resolution passed last year, the state of Tennessee has only a short time left to take Georgia up on its offer to give up any claim for the strip of land around Chattanooga that a 19th Century surveyor mistakenly assigned to Tennessee in exchange for a narrow link to Nickajack Lake and the waters of the Tennessee River.

If Tennessee doesn’t take the offer by the end of this year’s General Assembly session, the resolution by state Rep. Harry Geisinger of Roswell instructs Attorney General Sam Olens to file a U.S. Supreme Court suit to reclaim the land. But there’s been no apparent effort to get funding for the legal expenses involved, and the threat has been greeted in Tennessee with a collective yawn.

“That’s fine. They might as well go ahead,” Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “More power to them. We’re not going to move the state line, and we’re not going to give them the Tennessee River.”

Nationally, awareness of water issues has been sharpened not only by the increasingly severe drought in the West, but also a couple of man-made disasters in the East: the chemical spill in January which caused more than 300,000 people in West Virginia to be without drinkable water, and the pipe collapse last month at a Duke Energy plant in North Carolina which sent 70 miles’ worth of toxic coal ash sludge down the scenic Dan River.

North Carolina regulators have begun a crackdown on Duke Energy, the former employer of North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, whose administration has been accused of slacking off on enforcement of sites like the coal ash pond where the spill occurred, and there’s the possibility of federal criminal charges in the case.

There’s also been quick legislative action — but not in North Carolina, and not what you might think. In South Carolina, the House has passed a bill that prohibits citizens groups to file suit under the state’s pollution control law to force the cleanup of coal ash ponds like the one that overflowed in North Carolina.

Because you wouldn’t want to overreact to a little thing like 39,000 tons of coal ash, especially when it got spilled in another state.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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