GWC Reacts to Flint River Bill

A bill adopted by the Senate last week could funnel millions of tax dollars to one of the state’s major donors to political campaigns and threatens Georgia’s long-standing practice of managing water as a public resource, according to the Georgia Water Coalition (GWC).

For more information contact:
Gordon Rogers, Flint Riverkeeper: 912 223-6761 or gordon@flintriverkeeper.org
Gil Rogers, Southern Environmental Law Center: 404-521-9900 or grogers@selcga.org
Robin Singletary:  229-336-8600 or 229-336-6351
Dr. Sam Brewton:  706-647-9374 or 706-975-7125
 

FLINT RIVER BILL A VEHICLE FOR FUNNELING TAX DOLLARS TO BOONDOGGLE PROJECTS, UPROOTING GEORGIA WATER LAW, ACCORDING TO STATEWIDE WATER GROUP

 
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 11, 2013 - A bill adopted by the Senate last week could funnel millions of tax dollars to one of the state’s major donors to political campaigns and threatens Georgia’s long-standing practice of managing water as a public resource, according to the Georgia Water Coalition (GWC).
 
Senate Bill 213, revising the Flint River Drought Protection Act, passed out of the chamber March 7 with language that would allow the state to fund “projects to augment stream flows in a portion or portions of the Flint River Basin.” 
 
A potential augmentation project already underway that could receive additional funding under this provision is a project championed by the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission (SWGRC) and its consultant, Joe Tanner & Associates.
 
Joe Tanner & Associates has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to gubernatorial and legislative campaigns in recent years, according to the Coalition, a consortium of over 190 groups working to protect Georgia’s water resources and representing more than 300,000 Georgians. The firm, which is headed by a former Department of Natural Resources Commissioner and includes two former directors of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, contributed $12,855 to the governor’s last campaign.
 
In August 2012, the state awarded a $4.6 million state grant to the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission (SWGRC) to conduct an experimental project that involves pumping surface water into underground aquifers and then retrieving it to augment flows on the Flint River—an example of the controversial process known as aquifer storage and recovery (ASR). ASR is currently prohibited in certain parts of the state.
 
“The total final cost of this ASR project is estimated at $1.2 billion according to the SWGRC grant application,” said Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers. “They have not drilled the first test well but SB 213 establishes ASR and flow augmentation as an official solution to low flows on the Flint River. It opens the tax dollar tap for political cronies but does little to solve the real problem in the Flint.”
 
In November the GWC named the project to its annual “Dirty Dozen” list saying the Governor was investing in “boondoggles instead of water supply.”  During the judging of grant applications for the Governor’s Water Supply Program, the SWGRC ASR proposal received a score of 0 out of a possible 100 in the category of “need.”
 
During debate over the bill in the Senate, its sponsor, Sen. Ross Tolleson, (R-Perry), repeatedly denied connections between ASR and the “flow augmentation” provision included in the bill, saying ASR “is not in this bill” and the state “doesn’t do that.”
 
Joe Tanner & Associates has dropped $1500 into Sen. Tolleson’s campaign coffers during the past two years, according to records kept by the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. Tolleson has had no opponent for reelection in recent elections. 
 
“Tanner & Associates’ groundwater injection scheme is one of just two current flow augmentation programs in the Flint basin,” said Mark Woodall, Chairman of the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club.  “The other is a government-run well at Spring Creek to protect endangered species, which is already operating.”
 
Lawyers with the GWC have also raised concerns that SB 213’s flow augmentation language could lead to a sea change in Georgia water law. The bill provides that any stream flow generated from flow augmentation would not be available to downstream property owners or individuals with water withdrawal permits in the Flint River basin.  A later change in the law could expand this restriction beyond the Flint to streams across Georgia.
 
“This sets up a system where the state or a contractor conducting the flow augmentation could claim ‘ownership’ of that water,” said Gil Rogers, water law expert with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “This bill could open the door to claims of private ownership of what is now a public resource.”
 
News of this potential change has already sparked concern among Flint River landowners. “Property rights are serious issues for those of us that own farmland, hold withdrawal permits, and own land along the Flint in Southwest Georgia,” said Robin Singletary, Board Member of the Flint Riverkeeper.  “The bill as it currently stands is a direct assault on those rights.” 
 
Sam Brewton, M.D. and Board Member of the Flint Riverkeeper added:  “As a riparian owner, I have spent half my life fighting for free flows in the upper Flint, starting with plans to dam it up, and now facing having it dried up by an out of control permitting system. This bill needs to repair what’s broken, not threaten our property rights with expensive government proposals.”
 
SB 213 now goes to the House for consideration, although it has been significantly altered. During the hour-long debate over the measure, the Senate adopted Sen. Bill Cowsert’s (R-Athens) amendment to expand the scope of the bill to include a study of the entire Flint River basin. In a surprise vote, the Senate also adopted an amendment brought by Sen. Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) that imposes a statewide prohibition on future ASR drilling. An amendment brought by Sen. Jason Carter (D-Decatur) that would have struck the flow augmentation language, failed in a close hand-count vote.
 
The GWC supports measures in the bill calling for a comprehensive study of the entire river to determine adequate minimum flows as well as other provisions requiring more efficient irrigation systems for Southwest Georgia farms.
 
“This legislation could be good for the Flint,” said Rogers, the Flint Riverkeeper. “But the House needs to fix the bill so that our tax dollars don’t get funneled to a boondoogle project that benefits the politically connected at the expense of the rights of property owners and water users.” - See more at: http://greenlaw.org/info/99949#sthash.DsKgnxLq.dpuf