Water stewardship act a strong first step, more green steps needed

By Guest Columnist WILL WINGATE, vice president of advocacy and land conservation for the Georgia Conservancy

As the 2010 Georgia General Assembly draws to a close, one of the success stories of the session is the near unanimous passage of the Senate Bill 370, also known as the “Water Stewardship Act.”

This groundbreaking legislation sets forth a “culture of conservation” when dealing with Georgia’s water resources.

While the conservation measures set forth in the legislation are important, the willingness of the environmental and business communities to sit down and work together towards a common purpose will set the stage for the protection of Georgia’s natural resources for years to come.

will wingate

For many years, environmentalists tried unsuccessfully to pass water conservation measures in the state legislature. Quite frankly, for many elected officials, water was seen as an unlimited asset. Our efforts fell short and we failed to demonstrate the urgency to address the issue.

The lawsuit filed by Florida and Alabama against Georgia and subsequent ruling by Judge Paul Magnuson in July forced the leadership of the state to realize that water is our most important economic asset. We were given three years to come up with a workable solution.

Gov. Sonny Perdue assembled a “who’s who” task force to look at the impact of the Magnuson ruling and charged it to make recommendations to the General Assembly. The task force, of which Georgia Conservancy President Pierre Howard served, came to the conclusion that water conservation should be given a high priority in the 2010 legislative session.

In effect, Judge Magnuson forced a “shotgun wedding.” The Georgia Conservancy and other conservation partners were invited by the state leadership to give our ideas and offer solutions.

We worked with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the Georgia Farm Bureau, the Georgia Apartment Association, the Georgia Agri-Business Council and a host of other business leaders to draft a bill that would save millions of gallons of water a year and demonstrate to the states of Florida and Alabama that we are taking care of our downstream neighbors.

This forced working relationship also revealed that environmental and business advocates share common values; we all care deeply about the future of Georgia and desire to live in a state where people and the environment thrive. With this better understanding, we set aside our biases and got to work.

While some advocates feel the final version of the bill went too far, others felt it didn’t go far enough. In the end, SB 370 will be the strongest water conservation measure in the United States when it becomes law. And most importantly, it demonstrated to the leadership of this state that the environmental community can work constructively with the business community.

By offering solutions, not opinions, we will be more effective advocates.

Georgia’s natural resources have many challenges ahead. One of the most controversial issues not addressed this legislative session is the regulation of new inter-basin water transfers (IBT).

The environmental community has partnered with business and political leaders outside of metro Atlanta to highlight the importance of placing science-based criteria on water transfers from one part of the state to another.

In fact, we have recommended using language previously agreed to by the General Assembly in the state water plan. We have gained a tremendous amount of legislative support for IBT regulations by demonstrating that safeguarding water is an economic development issue.

Communities outside of Atlanta deserve guarantees that future growth in the metro Atlanta area will not compromise their ability to attract industry, farm, and prosper. Over the next year, we are committed to working with the Metro Atlanta Chamber and other business groups throughout the state to find a legislative solution to protecting our river basins.

Another venue for cooperation is in the creation of a sustainable fund for land conservation. Less than 8 percemt of Georgia’s 37 million acres are preserved for future generations.

Recent successful land conservation campaigns in Minnesota and New Jersey have demonstrated that the public will support new tax dollars for purchasing and preserving land. These campaigns were championed by business leaders who understood the economic benefits of land preservation.

Millions of dollars are spent in Georgia communities by citizens who hunt, fish, watch birds, or simply desire to go outside. Much of the land used by the public is leased by the state from year to year.

By demonstrating to the business community the economic case for land conservation, we can and will gain their political support. Farms and timberlands clean our water and air while enhancing our quality of life. It is incumbent on us as environmental leaders to show their economic benefit as well.

The environmental community and the business community will certainly not see eye to eye on every issue. In some cases, we must disagree and advocate for different positions.

Yet as Georgians, we will all be better served by continuing the dialog that began this session and offer elected leaders real working solutions to Georgia’s problems.

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