Drowning in water wars

Lobbyists out-trick each other over water control

The nastiest battle this legislative session wasn't over the Georgia flag or the driving age in metro Atlanta. The issue that produced the most backstabbing and dirty dealing was water.

Water issues that had been simmering in the Capitol since January came to a boil March 6 and lasted the rest of the session.

Two separate water bills produced the kind of knockdown, drag-out fight that made lobbyists and lawmakers recall the old days before King Roy Barnes began zipping bills through the General Assembly.

Maybe not in the center of the two pieces of legislation, but always close to it, was a crew of environmental lobbyists — the Sierra Club's Neil Herring, Mark Woodall, Jim Kulstad, Bob Fletcher, the Georgia Conservancy's John Sibley and the Upper Chattahoochee RiverKeeper's Sally Bethea.

They were the ones fighting to get the Water Bill of Rights, a resolution introduced on Jan. 31 outlining eight basic premises on the value of water as a natural resource, through the Senate intact. But they failed when the Georgia Chamber of Commerce used chicanery to put the bill in a coma.

The environmental lobbyists came back with a devious move of their own that reinforced what they considered to be a weak spot in Barnes' proposed water planning district, which will regulate water quality and supply in metro Atlanta.

If they had to justify what they did, they could argue that the Georgia Chamber of Commerce started it.

On March 6, Georgia Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Earl Rogers gave state Sen. Charles Walker an amendment to the Water Bill of Rights.

Rogers told Walker and other lawmakers that the amendment was supported by the environmental lobbying crew.

The amendment doesn't look that sinister at first glance. It would separate Georgia's water into two groups: tidal and navigable waters would be public waters managed by the state. But surface and ground waters would be managed "in the best interests of the public," which would allow for industrial water withdrawals — something that Woodall and the other lobbyists had been opposing all along.

A lobbyist for the Georgia Chamber who did not want to be named says there was a misunderstanding, that Georgia Chamber lobbyists thought that the green lobbyists supported the amendment.

Woodall has another explanation: "These guys lie all the time. It's all part of doing bidness."

Their goal, Woodall says, was to make sure that nothing, not even a non-binding resolution, threatened a company's ability to withdraw water from lakes, rivers and creeks that are becoming environmentally stressed by the demands being placed on them by Georgia's increasing population and development.

When it comes to water, the stakes are high, as signatures on the amendment the Georgia Chamber proposed to Walker prove: Charles Hood of Georgia Pacific, Steve Allen of Georgia Power, Rick Cobb of the American Petroleum Council, Stephen Loftin of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Keith Hatcher of the Georgia Association of Realtors and Roy Bowen of the Georgia Textile Manufacturers Association.

Big business fears that environmental demands will override the metro area's growing need for water and hamper its economic development. Green lobbyists say conserving water and protecting streams and rivers is better over the long term for Atlanta's economy and quality of life.

Sibley, Herring and Woodall were told by friendly senators about the Georgia Chamber's amendment before the full Senate could vote on it. "Walker came up with the idea to table [the resolution], which was brilliant, because it bought us more time," Woodall said at the time.

But the Chamber wasn't finished with the Water Bill of Rights. Rogers showed lawmakers copies of lawsuits the North Carolina RiverKeeper organization filed against North Carolina hog farmers. The lawsuit relied on language similar to that found in the Water Bill of Rights; it resulted in a $50 million settlement against the hog farms. (North Carolina's corporate hog farms gained infamy a few years back when floods combined with lax environmental regulations to send tons of bacteria-infected waste into the state's rivers.)

From the beginning of the legislative session, the Upper Chattahoochee RiverKeeper's Bethea denied that the Water Bill of Rights had anything to do with any intention to file lawsuits. But the lawsuits Rogers found from North Carolina gave rural lawmakers cause to fear that activists in Georgia would use the document as a basis for multimillion-dollar lawsuits.

"It's peculiar, and it's a shame that they would tell legislators, and us, that the Water Bill of Rights would not be used to file lawsuits," says the Georgia Chamber lobbyist. "Clearly the RiverKeeper group is intent on that."

As of press time, the Water Bill of Rights was tabled with almost no chance of revival, and that's fine with Woodall. The resolution was already eviscerated by weeks of negotiations with the Georgia Chamber.

For example, the original Water Bill of Rights, endorsed on behalf of more than 1.5 million Georgians, once read, "Georgians no longer accept the assertion that polluted water is a necessary price for economic development."

That was changed to "Georgians recognize that clean water is vital to sustainable economic progress and a healthy economy."

The Sierra Club lobbyists were able to sneak some progress of their own into the more significant water bill that confronted lawmakers this year. Barnes' legislation to create an 18-county metro Atlanta water-planning district already had disappointed environmentalists, partly because its limited scope will give so much power to the local officials whose turf fights have helped create North Georgia's water crisis in the first place.

From the get-go, Herring, Kulstad and Woodall were shunned by Barnes' administration because of the lawsuit the Sierra Club filed challenging the state's regional transportation plan. That was a far cry from two years ago, when the same enviros were fellow travelers as the Barnes legislative bandwagon that created the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

This year, Herring says, "We were told, I quote, 'We won't listen to you, we won't talk to you because you are suing us.'"

Even Bethea, executive director of one of the largest water advocacy groups in the state, watched from the sidelines all last summer when the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce's Clean Water Initiative hammered out the report that would become the basis for Barnes' planning district.

Many of the environmentalists were so disgusted by the planning bill that they had hoped it would stall, only to be replaced by more environmentally friendly legislation next year. It seemed unlikely that a paltry group of nonprofit lobbyists could block the Barnes/Chamber/local government steamroller. But they were able to shift the steamroller's direction a bit.

On the same day the Georgia Chamber tried to sneak its amendment on to the Water Bill of Rights, Kulstad distributed parts of an October 1999 Atlanta Regional Commission plan that studied piping water from about 25 lakes, creeks, rivers and reservoirs into Atlanta.

The "Potential Surface Water Sources" study looked at siphoning water from as far away as West Point Lake, Lake Oconee and the Tennessee River near Chattanooga.

Rural legislators would rather trade in their pickup trucks for a pink and yellow polka-dotted VW Bug than give their water to Atlanta. Environmentalists also despise the practice, called inter-basin transfers, because of its devastating impact on aquatic life.

Their fear is easily understood — the ARC has looked into inter-basin transfers as a way to supply Atlanta with the water it needs to grow and the ARC is the same organization charged with coming up with a plan to keep Atlanta supplied with water.

At a Natural Resources Subcommittee meeting late that evening, March 6, ARC Director Charles "Chick" Krautler tried to downplay the piping plan as just a study, just something the ARC looked into at one point.

But it was too late. They may have had to turn to guerilla tactics, but the green lobbyists generated skepticism about Barnes' grand water district — and had laid the groundwork for their small victory.

Late Monday night, when the planning district legislation passed the House in the waning days of the session, inter-basin transfers stirred the hottest debate. Three different lawmakers offered separate amendments banning inter-basin transfers.

One was written by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bob Hanner, who said, "There's been a lot of fears expressed that this bill's purpose is to expand the inter-basin transfers, that Atlanta will steal water from surrounding rural areas. This is not an inter-basin transfer bill, but this amendment will make sure that that can't be done."

Even after Barnes' floor leader, Rep. Charlie Smith Jr., denied that inter-basin transfers were a part of the water-planning district, Rep. Jeff Brown, R-LaGrange, offered another amendment to the bill that prohibited inter-basin transfers. "I am convinced that [the bill] is a grab for water supply," Brown said.

Others, like Rep. Jeff Williams, R-Gwinnett, said inter-basin transfers were necessary to keep the region supplied with water.

After three-and-half hours of debate, Hanner's amendment banning inter-basin transfers was the only measure that got tacked onto the bill. Then, the bill passed 145-25.

(At press time, a House and Senate committee was set to meet to reconcile differences in the two versions of the bill. That could result in Hanner's amendment being axed.)

Just as Kulstad had hoped, the study drummed up fears about the very real possibility that metro Atlanta would suck up water from the rest of the state.

It was an old-fashioned legislative fight in the tradition of the General Assembly. And in that tradition, the big powers — the governor's office, local elected officials, big businesses — got most of what they wanted, while a wily cadre of nonprofit activists scrambled for a few amendments around the edges.

The question, of course, is where that leaves the people of Georgia — or more specifically the people who drink, irrigate, swim, flush, fish, bathe and gargle in insatiable metro Atlanta.

"This was a stumbling half-step," Herring says. "Anybody who thinks that water quality will improve over the next 36 months because of the operation of this bill is delusional."