Today, business and environmental groups from across the state are expected to voice their objections at a public hearing the agency is holding in Atlanta. In the meantime, hundreds of e-mails have streamed into the agency calling for a change in the wording.
At issue is whether "should" or "shall" be included in the rule. As written, the draft rule says the EPD should consider the environmental and economic impact of transferring water from one river basin to another.
The critics think "should" isn't strong enough.
"In some respects, it indicates it would be optional for the EPD director instead of a requirement," said Sue Parr, president of the Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce.
The proposal lists specific criteria EPD should consider before issuing a permit allowing an industry or local government to take water from one basin, use it and discharge it into another. That criteria came from the statewide water management plan drafted over three years with input from experts and various advocacy groups.
"They are solid, common-sense criteria that, if fully evaluated by EPD with each application for a water permit involving an interbasin transfer, will produce the kind of facts needed to determine whether a proposed water transfer would harm our rivers or the interests of downstream communities," according to an e-mail signed by Mary Jo Busby of St. Simons Island. That e-mail is almost identical to hundreds of others the EPD received.
Outgoing Athens Mayor Heidi Davison also signed one.
Business groups worry that transfers by upstream communities from metro Atlanta will leave downstream cities without resources needed for economic development.
"Atlanta is an economic engine, but we feel like sometimes in the push to make sure that Atlanta's needs are taken care of that some of the rest of us may suffer," said Sam Freeman, business services director of the Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce. "We don't want that to happen."
Environmental groups fear that unregulated transfers will kill wildlife in streams during droughts, according to April Ingle, executive director of the Athens-based Georgia River Network, a coalition of 30 organizations from across the state.
Legislation to require EPD to consider the proposed criteria stalled in the House and Senate Natural Resources committees last year.
The chairman of the Senate committee, Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, said he favors keeping flexibility in the EPD's consideration of transfer permits.
"If you close off [interbasin transfers], you just shut down the economy in that part of the state," he told legislators in a conference last month at the University of Georgia. "At the end of the day, [the current wording] is a good policy."
The Board of Natural Resources that oversees EPD votes Jan. 26 on the rule, based on the public comments.
If the board doesn't change the wording, critics say they'll ask legislators to step in with a law. They complain that most of the 30-day comment period occurred when their members were distracted by the holidays and that the rule is an attempt to placate legislators.
"I think the timing definitely relates to the upcoming legislative session," Ingle said.