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Now, the splash fight begins

This year's clean-water debate mirrors debate over roads, air quality

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THE HIGH-POWERED group grappling over the future of Atlanta's water is about to take off the gloves. At first, members of the Clean Water Initiative will be duking it out with each other. The big question within the task force revolves around who will control the water-planning agency the group is expected to propose before next year's General Assembly session.

Once that issue is settled, the task force will face an even bigger challenge: convincing state legislators to adequately fund the Environmental Protection Division so it can actually do its job.

At the heart of the debate is whether metro Atlanta will deal with regional water issues the same way it dealt -- or didn't deal -- with transportation and air quality.

The 37 members of the task force agree on many issues, especially that something needs to be done before local rivers are so saturated with treated sewage and dirty stormwater that growth in the region will be impossible.

But the group, composed of politicians, business leaders and environmentalists, is divided over who will govern the water agency. All parties are lobbying to ensure they'll be part of the agency's leadership.

During a Sept. 20 meeting, it became clear that the easy part of dealing with the water issue was over.

Cobb County Commission Chairman Bill Byrne and some other elected officials argued that agreements between local governments would be enough to solve the problem.

Environmentalists say legislation would be required to keep local governments on track. Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Chairman Rutherford Seydel II told the task force local governments couldn't be counted on because they haven't done enough to address the water problem in the past. Government officials insist they've been doing a fine job.

"We've been using the memorandums of agreement for years with transportation planning," Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Wayne Hill says. "I'd rather do this without legislation. Once you send it to the Legislature, you never know what's going to come out."

To many observers, however, dealing with water the same way the region dealt for years with transportation would amount to not learning an obvious lesson. After all, Atlanta's failure to plan its transportation future precipitated an air-quality crisis and the creation of a separate state agency, the Georgia Regional Transportation Agency, to deal with the problem.

Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper President Sally Bethea, favors the proposal to create a new division in Department of Natural Resources because "water is a state resource, not a city or county resource and [Natural Resources] already has a mandate to protect water in Georgia." Bethea argued that allowing local officials to control the water agency would perpetuate the status quo, and that isn't option.

Most parties do agree on the second key issue confronting the task force: that the EPD must be adequately funded to enforce water-quality regulations.

All the proposals before the clean water taskforce name EPD as the water agency's primary enforcer, but EPD hasn't had the resources to enforce water quality laws that have been on the books since 1972.

Once the task force -- which was created by regional business groups but sanctified by Gov. Roy Barnes -- presents its final proposal to Barnes and the General Assembly, the effort to improve the region's water quality will depend on how much money legislators budget for EPD.

According to the EPD's budget plan, Georgia's environmental agency has the lowest ratio among Southern states of staff members to state population. For example, for every 1 million people in the state, EPD has 100 employees. Alabama has 103 environmental agency employees per million residents, North Carolina has 120 per million, Kentucky has 191, Florida has 245, and so on.

"One of the biggest problems is that [EPD Director] Harold [Reheis] has been having problems with legislators not given him enough new people," Gwinnett Chairman Hill says. "They haven't been willing to give him more help."

The EPD budget plan asks legislators for $10.3 million to fund 182 new positions, with 70 of those slots being added next year.

Last year, Reheis asked legislators to charge permit fees for wastewater treatment facilities, construction, and groundwater and surface water withdrawals that could raise $12 million a year.

The Legislature denied the request, but the General Assembly gave the EPD enough funding for 50 new staff members -- Reheis asked for 60 -- and of those new positions, 36 went to water programs, according to EPD's budget plan.

Rep. Stephanie Stuckey, D-Decatur, says times have changed, and Reheis may have better luck this legislative session.

"People realize the magnitude of this problem. Hopefully we have learned from Atlanta's experience with the air quality problem," says Stuckey, who also serves on the task force. "And the governor has said this [water issue] is a priority."

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