ATLANTA - Lawmakers fretful over the impact of Georgia's lingering drought grilled the state's top water experts Thursday on topics ranging from why farmers can't get irrigation permits faster to whether the state really is trying to settle a water war with Alabama and Florida.
State officials promised efforts to speed up the permits and said they're still hopeful the years-old water dispute can be resolved.
They also told members of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee that the statewide outdoor watering restrictions imposed last month appear to be paying off. In some regions, water consumption has been cut by as much as 10 percent.
There are no immediate plans for further state-ordered restrictions, but if the drought persists and water supplies continue to shrink, water rationing could come under consideration, they said.
Still, David Word, the state Environmental Protection Division's assistant director, told the lawmakers, "Everything we are doing now is to avoid that."
Over the past two years, Georgia has piled up a rainfall deficit of as much as 45 inches in some places. That's the equivalent of a year's loss of rainfall since May 1998. Some streams in southwest Georgia are running at less than 10 percent of normal.
Stream flows into lakes Lanier and Allatoona, the primary reservoirs for metro Atlanta, during May and June were the third lowest for both months since those lakes were impounded.
Farmers, attempting to cope with extremely dry soils through irrigation, are not under outdoor watering restrictions, but some have complained of long delays in obtaining permits required by the state for anyone using more than 100,000 gallons of water a day from either a well or a stream.
Napoleon Caldwell, head of EPD's water resources management program, said the agency is taking a slow approach to permits in 15 counties in southwest Georgia's lower Flint River basin. That's because it appears increased pumping from irrigation and other wells is lowering the water table in the region and reducing stream flow into the Flint, Mr. Caldwell said.
In other areas of the state, permits should take about 60 days, he said.
Rep. Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, chairman of the House budget-writing committee, told him 60 days was too long. "In 60 days, you can lose a crop," he said.
Mr. Word told Mr. Coleman, "We'll work as fast as we possibly can."
Mr. Coleman also said there is "growing skepticism" among some that the state really is trying to resolve its battle with Alabama and Florida over rivers that flow out of Georgia and into those states.
"Is it lawyers? Is it staff? Is it egos?" he asked. "People are getting concerned about it."
There are two separate battles.
Georgia and Alabama are arguing over sharing water in the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basin. All threes states are involved in the dispute over water-sharing in the Appalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin.
Bob Kerr, a negotiator for Georgia in the talks, told legislators the state wants to negotiate an equitable water allocation formula, but he added:
"We think we have a right to the reasonable use of water that falls within this state to support our population. It is not our intent to be held hostage to demands downstream."
EPD Director Harold Reheis said Georgia negotiators "are trying to bring it to a close, and a good one for Georgia. We still hope we can."
But even if the three states resolve their differences, Georgia still faces a long-term water problem. Projections show existing sources will support growth only until the year 2030.