What was billed as the "year of water" by some Georgia lawmakers turned into a drought of severe proportions. Sweeping water legislation was defeated soundly in the final minutes of the General Assembly’s regular session, concluded in late April.

The only water-related bill to win approval was a water-metering law aimed at farmers, but funding and administration of the legislation remains uncertain.

House Bill 579 calls for the Georgia Soil & Water Conservation Commission to be responsible for measuring the amount of water used for irrigation or other agricultural purposes if the amount used is 100,000 gallons per day or more. The bill states there will be no charge for the meters if permits were issued before the end of 2002. For permits issued after that date, the Georgia Soil & Water Conservation Commission may charge a reasonable fee. However, without funding for the bill, some questions remain.

An amendment to the bill requires that water used for recreational uses be compiled separately from farm uses.

A lack of funds for state programs was a common theme of the first regular session of the 147th General Assembly, the longest session since 1889. Budget woes affected nearly every piece of legislation in one way or another, with program cuts and tax increases ruling the day.

A more comprehensive water bill — House Bill 237 — failed by a vote of 60 to 105 in the House and was never called to a vote in the Senate. The bill’s failure was a surprise to many, as the legislation was a result of numerous lengthy conference committee meetings before a compromise finally was worked out.

According to Georgia Farm Bureau reports, the comprehensive water bill drew the largest group of environmental lobbyists ever assembled at the capitol in Atlanta. The main concern of the lobbyists was a provision allowing for the sale and transfer of water permits.

The just-completed session was the first of a two-year Georgia General Assembly. Bills not finalized this year could reappear in 2004, and most observers expect that House Bill 237 — or some other form of sweeping water legislation — will again be a major issue in the General Assembly’s second session.

The original version of House Bill 237 included the following provisions:

Water permits and meters — All persons having the capacity to use 100,000 gallons of water per day, surface or ground water, will be required to acquire a permit from the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Permits issued prior to July 1, 2003, will be "grandfathered" according to current law. Permits issued after this date will be subject to several changes:

o The EPD director will have the authority to deny or modify permits based on the availability of water, or if the application does not demonstrate a need for the water.

o New permits will include a "maximum annual volume," which basically is a limit on the amount of water that can be withdrawn with the permit. Permits transferred also will be quantified.

All permitted uses will be required to have a meter to measure the amount of water being used. The Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission will be charged with the installation of meters. For permit applications made prior to Dec. 31, 2002, there will be no charge for the meter or its installation. For permits issued later, the commission is authorized to charge a reasonable fee. After July 1, 2009, no withdrawals of 100,000 gallons per day will be allowed without a permit and meter.

Transfers — Any transfer of water that crosses more than two adjacent counties is prohibited. An exception is provided for the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District. That 16-county area surrounding Atlanta already transfers water within its boundaries, and it will not be prevented from continuing to do so. However, the district is prevented from transferring water from outside its boundaries.

House Bill 237 authorizes a coordinating committee to develop a water management plan to be submitted no later than three years from the bill’s passage. The committee is to consist of the following state commissioners: Agriculture; Natural Resources; Industry, Trade & Tourism; Community Affairs; and Human Resources. Also included is the attorney general, the director of the Georgia Soil & Water Conservation Commission and the respective chairmen of the House and Senate Natural Resources committees. The EPD director will serve as chairman of the coordinating committee. The proposed water management plan will be submitted to the General Assembly for final approval.

The most controversial provision of the bill would have allowed farmers or factories to sell permits to withdraw water in regions where it is scarce. They also could have sold permits to one another.

Powerful interest groups, including a strong alliance between farmers and businesses, supported the free-market approach. They argued it would give them incentive to let go of water rights to make room for new businesses and residential development.

Proponents of selling and trading permits also say that the ability to sell water withdrawal allowances is needed to solve an immediate problem in southwest Georgia. Because of concerns about over-pumping in the Dougherty Plain, the state isn’t giving out new farm irrigation permits in the region until at least 2005.

Environmental lobbyists said selling water rights would lead to over-using rivers and underground aquifers. There also was some question about the legality of selling water rights.

e-mail" phollis@primediabusiness.com