ATLANTA — A bill that would pave the way for private-public partnerships to build reservoirs in Georgia is drawing concern from some environmentalists who fear it could allow private developers to use the state's water crisis to turn a profit.
The legislation — scheduled for a full House vote on Wednesday — is designed to help finance improvements to the state's water supply by allowing private developers to partner with local governments to build reservoirs, create water treatment plants or repair leaky pipes.
But some environmentalists say the bill would allow for lucrative developments along the shore of new water reservoirs as long as they don't use state funds. And it would let local government officials seize land through eminent domain and then convey the land to a private company.
"It's a bad bill," veteran Sierra Club lobbyist Neil Herring said.
Developers aren't going to get involved unless they can make money, Herring said. He said the legislation allows them to do just that.
But the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Ross Tolleson, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said that's no different than Wall Street making money if the local government floats bonds to fund a water project.
The bill, Tolleson said, simply gives cash-strapped local governments another financing option to move forward on pricey water infrastructure projects that run into the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.
"What we're setting in motion is a massive amount of investment 25 years or so down the road," the Perry Republican said.
He accused critics of simply opposing the bill because it could push forward new reservoir projects, which environmentalists largely oppose.
The bill has the support of many business leaders who are skittish that the state's ongoing water feud could stall economic development.
The push for new reservoirs in Georgia comes as the state seeks to solve its ongoing water feud with neighboring Alabama and Florida.
A federal judge has ruled that metro Atlanta has little legal right to drinking water from Lake Lanier and said he will severely restrict Atlanta's use of that reservoir in 2012 unless political leaders in Georgia, Alabama and Florida reach a deal to end 30 years of fighting over water usage.
Gov. Nathan Deal in January pledged to spend $300 million over four years to support reservoir and other water infrastructure projects. The new Republican governor said Georgia needs to show good faith by doing what it can to expand and save its water supply.
Fueling the suspicion of the private-public bill is that there is big money to be made quenching Atlanta's thirst.
Herring said the most lucrative part would be development along new reservoir lakes.
Projects that use state funds would be subject to buffer restrictions.
"But if they don't use state funds they could pretty much put a septic tank on the water's edge," he said.
Some key developers and consultants interested in water projects in the state are also politically well-connected.
Former state Sen. Chip Pearson, who pushed a bill similar to Tolleson's last year, has formed a consulting business with two lobbyists that have worked to push for new reservoirs. The engineering firm of former state Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Tanner has served as a consultant for proposed reservoir projects. Pearson and Tanner both served on Deal's transition team.
Still, lawmakers did strengthen revolving-door restrictions moving forward. Changes made to the bill would require government officials to wait three years — instead of one — before they could work for companies with state water project contracts.
And not all environmentalists oppose the legislation.
Will Wingate, of Georgia Conservancy, said the group is neutral on the legislation and said it was much improved from the one Pearson pushed last year. He praised the new bill for allowing for the financing of non-reservoir projects, like storage options and leaky pipes.
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