Georgia Needs the Option of Interbasin Transfers

By Benita M. Dodd

At least as misunderstood as the possibilities for water permit transfers in Georgia are the necessities of interbasin water transfers, in which water is moved from one river basin to another.

Interbasin transfers, which currently involve six of Georgia’s 14 river basins, started out as a matter of Georgia topography. As counties were populated, especially in North Georgia, cities developed on higher ground near a surface water supply. Often, the high ground was a ridge separating two river basins. The city drew water from one basin and served residents living in both, and the water did not always make its way back to its source basin. Sometimes the intake system was in one basin and the discharge system in another.

Today, soaring population growth and economic considerations have made interbasin transfers a way of life, with water providers operating under a slew of environmental agency guidelines to minimize the impact on water quality and quantity. 

Legislation introduced in 2003 included a proposal to limit an interbasin transfer to three counties, while exempting the 16-county Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District and the Savannah region. Another bill proposed banning all interbasin transfers except in emergencies.

Some cities took up the call. “It is unjust for communities that practice good planning to have their natural resources diverted to subsidize the lack of planning in other communities,” Augusta Mayor Bob Young declared in a letter urging “legislation that bans interbasin transfers.”

Interbasin transfers involve just 25 of Georgia’s 159 counties, all of them in the northwestern quadrant of the state. But those 25 counties include most of metropolitan Atlanta and are home to nearly 54 percent of the state population.

It’s not lack of planning, but good planning, that results in interbasin transfers. Water authorities such as Griffin’s and Cobb County’s, which serve numerous communities in several basins, reduce the need for costly, duplicative facilities in each municipality. These large water providers invest in state-of-the art equipment and timely maintenance, and the cost is distributed among a broader base of customers. Meanwhile, the environmental benefit of an efficient water supply and treatment system is a reduced impact on the water supply.

To eliminate these existing, interwoven interbasin transfers “would cost Georgia’s cities and counties billions of dollars to change their existing water and sewer infrastructure,” according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Brant Keller, director of Public Works and Utilities for Griffin, concurs: “There are water systems which provide regional water supplies for those municipal governments that do not have the resources to build and operate water treatment facilities,” he says.

Keller cites the case of Griffin, which pumps from the Flint River but has 30 percent of its customers in the Ocmulgee Basin.

“In our situation it would not be economically feasible to build two reservoirs, and environmentally it does not make good sense to build unnecessary water impoundments,” he says.

Roy Fowler humorously describes himself as general manager of the “poster child for interbasin transfers.” The Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority, the state’s second-largest purveyor of water, withdraws from Lake Allatoona and the Chattahoochee.

Fowler’s concern is that scare tactics and sound bites will result in politicians adopting politically correct laws that are bad policy for the state.  “Interbasin transfers should be scrutinized and minimized based on options available, but they cannot be eliminated,” he warns.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and leads its Environmental Initiative. This article appears in the February-March 2004 issue of the Georgia Policy Review, the Foundation’s bimonthly newsletter. The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (February 27, 2004). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.