Georgia creates 18-county Metropolitan Water Planning District -- Needs $6 million/year 
Charles Seabrook - Staff
Monday, March 26, 2001

Georgia now has its first water planning district --- what Gov. Roy Barnes touts as his solution to metro Atlanta's "water quality crisis."

The legislation creating the 18-county North Georgia Metropolitan Water Planning District was adopted last week on the last day of the 2001 legislative session.

It establishes a 29-member board tasked with drawing up plans to control storm runoff, increase sewage capacity and manage water supplies in the region.

Barnes is expected to sign the legislation in early April. But already the Atlanta Regional Commission and the state Environmental Protection Agency are scrambling to implement the historic measure, which goes into effect on May 1.

"We've got a huge amount of work to do in a short time," says Chick Krautler, ARC executive director. "It's vital that we get started as soon as possible." The ARC will provide the staff and administrative support for the district's 29-member board.

A scramble also is on to fund the district, which will cost as much as $6 million a year for the first three years. The state is committed to providing only $1 million a year for the first two years, but the counties and municipalities in the district may have to come up with the remaining $5 million a year.

Krautler hopes that some of the money can be raised from major foundations, federal grants and other sources.

The money crunch means that one of the first things the 29-member panel will have to do when it meets is devise a formula for each jurisdiction to ante up its portion of the $5 million. For some jurisdictions, raising their share may require an increase in water and sewer bills.

Because much of the district's planning mandates will be contracted out to private consultants, the agency must have most of its funding assured before contracts can be signed, Krautler says. Also, because of the additional heavy workload, ARC will have to hire additional staff.

The water district board must grapple with several serious water problems that threaten to curtail the region's spectacular growth if they are not resolved. The metro area, for instance, is reaching the limit on how much treated sewage the Chattahoochee and other moderately sized rivers in the region can accept. Also, nearly 1,000 miles of rivers and streams in the region don't meet federal clean water standards.

The board and the ARC will be under a rigid, pressure-packed timetable to produce several plans to deal with the problems during the next two years. They include:

A model ordinance to control storm runoff, which environmental authorities say is now the leading cause of water pollution in the metro Atlanta region. The ordinance is due one year after May 1, and all jurisidictions within the 18-county district will be expected to adopt it.

A district-wide watershed management plan, which will be due within two years of the effective date of the water planning law.

A short-term plan to ease immediate sewage-treatment capacity shortages. It is due within a year.

A plan, due within two years, to increase sewage treatment capacity during the next 20 years within the district.

A blueprint, due within two years, on how the region will meet increasing demands for clean water. The plan also will include strategies for conserving water.

In the meantime, the EPD will have to prepare standards, such as pollution limits and sewage treatment requirements, that the plans will have to meet. When the plans are completed, EPD will review them to make sure they meet the standards.

"We really have our work cut out for us," says Assistant EPD Director David Word.

EPD Director Harold Reheis may be faced with some other crucial decisions. For instance, some of the smaller outlying counties in the 18-county district can request exclusion from the district, while other counties not in the district may ask to be included. Reheis will be the final authority on which counties can opt out of the district or others that can join it.

The EPD also will be the enforcement arm for the new district. Cities and counties that do not adhere to the plans would run the risk of losing state grant money for water-related projects and being turned down for permits to withdraw more water from, or discharge more treated sewage into, area rivers and streams.

Krautler says he hopes that the necessary appointments to the board will be made as soon as possible because of the pivotal decisions the panel must make in a short time. Under the new law, the county commission chairmen in places with 200,000 or more population --- Cobb, Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett --- are guaranteed a seat on the board. Also, the Atlanta mayor will have a seat.

The remaining 13 counties will be represented by either the county commission chairman or a mayor whose city has a water or sewer system. The representative would be chosen by a caucus of the mayors and county commission members and would alternate terms between county commission chairmen and mayors.

Ten citizen members also will serve on the board. Six members will be appointed by the governor, two by the lieutenant governor and two by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The governor will appoint the chairman and vice chairman of the district for the first three-year term.

In addition to the district board, technical committees will be created to provide support and will consist of water and waste water officials from the local governments in the district.

Six separate river basin advisory councils of 20 members each representing upstream and downstream areas of the district will be created.

The water planning district is an outgrowth of the Clean Water Task Force created last year by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the Regional Business Coalition to deal with Atlanta's water troubles.

In a series of meetings, the 37-member task force drew up a detailed report and recommendations on how the metro region must resolve its pressing sewage treatment, storm runoff and water supply problems.

The group's report was handed to Barnes, who incorporated most of the recommendations in his legislation but expanded on some of them, such as increasing the numbers of counties included and the makeup of the governing board.

Local government officials acknowledge that the costs of resolving the region's water woes will come at a hefty price, which could run to $2 billion --- and as much as $4 billion --- over the next 10 to 15 years beyond what the jurisdictions already are committed to spend.

"It's going to be painful, but it has to be done," says Gwinnett County Chairman Wayne Hill. "We've got to protect our water."