Battle looms over Georgia water rights

GEORGIA - Who owns Georgia's water? Until recently, the answer was straightforward: the state of Georgia does, on behalf of its residents. But a controversial court ruling could allow private ownership of water, jeopardizing the resource throughout the state.

In May, a federal bankruptcy court in Brunswick ruled that the defunct Durango Georgia Paper Co. in St. Marys, which was trying to dispose of its assets, could sell its water withdrawal permit to the highest bidder.

The decision resurrected an issue that environmentalists thought had been settled. In 2003, advocacy groups lobbied against state legislation that would have allowed water rights to be sold or traded. The bill was defeated. But now the Durango court case has opened a Pandora's box.

Jim Stokes, president of the Georgia Conservancy, said the state Environmental Protection Division is supposed to have the authority to decide how water should be used, in order to serve the public interest.

"The decision shouldn't be made by a private company," he said. "For example, let's say there's a poultry plant in Gainesville, a huge user of water, that decides to relocate to another area.

"(Under the new ruling), the company could sell its water rights, conceivably to be piped to another county or even to an adjacent state," he said. "That takes the water entirely out of the Gainesville community.

calendar icon 1 August 2005
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