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Georgia lawmakers approve private water utility bypassing county to serve homes near Hyundai plant

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LA Post: Georgia lawmakers approve private water utility bypassing county to serve homes near Hyundai plant
AP
RUSS BYNUM
March 28, 2024

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Georgia lawmakers gave final passage Thursday to a change in state law that would allow a private utility to provide water service for new homes near Hyundai's upcoming electric vehicle plant without first getting permission from local governments.

The state Senate approved House Bill 1146 by a vote of 32-22 on the final day of the legislative session. The measure now goes to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to be signed into law.

Hyundai broke ground in October 2022 on its first U.S. factory dedicated to producing EVs and the batteries that power them. It’s the largest economic development project in Georgia’s history, and construction has progressed quickly as the South Korean automaker seeks to begin manufacturing cars by the end of this year.

Supporters of the bill said the legislation is needed to accelerate home construction in Bryan County, where Hyundai plans to employ 8,500 workers at its $7.6 billion EV plant west of Savannah. They say the county's water system can't meet the area's growing need for housing, but local officials have been reluctant to give a private utility their consent to help provide service as the law currently requires.

"We have to find a way to meet an immediate need for workforce housing, and in order to get that done we need a private water option and a public water option,” said Sen. Max Burns, a Republican from Sylvania who supported the proposal.

Opponents argue that letting private utilities bypass city and county governments undermines their ability to manage limited water resources in Georgia’s rapidly growing coastal region. The Georgia Association of Water Professionals said it would also circumvent safe drinking water rules intended to protect Georgia consumers.

Sen. Frank Ginn, a Republican from Danielsville, said he opposed the change because it would allow private utilities to disrupt local planning for growth and development. Before serving in the legislature, Ginn worked as a city and county manager.

“As a local government guy and a guy who has built water systems, I know how difficult it makes it when a private water system comes in and cuts out a part of the county,” Ginn said.

Savannah-based Water Utility Management, a private company that supplies drinking water to 32,000 homes in 17 Georgia counties, pushed lawmakers to pass the bill. It would allow the company to bypass local governments that are unable to provide water for the same development project within 18 months.

Water Utility Management CEO Mark Smith told a Senate committee earlier this month that the measure would "prevent the county from having a veto power over a private system.”

Private utilities would still be required to obtain permits from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Their ability to bypass local governments is intended to be temporary and would lapse at the start of 2029.

It's not just Bryan County that would be impacted. The bypass provision would apply to any projects seeking water from “coastal aquifers,” which the Georgia Association of Water Professionals says would include most of southern Georgia.

The association joined conservation groups in opposing the local government bypass, as did the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

The bill's chief sponsor, Republican Rep. Ron Stephens of Savannah, has said state-imposed limits on how much water Bryan County can withdraw from the Floridan aquifer, the region's main source of drinking water, are slowing construction of new homes needed to accommodate Hyundai's workforce.

Smith says Water Utility Management has the capacity to withdraw enough water to supply about 3,000 homes near the Hyundai plant, but has struggled to get approval from Bryan County.

In Bryan County, home to about 45,000 people, the county government is pursuing a $360 million expansion of its own water and sewer system to serve the plant and nearby homes. The expansion is expected to come online next year.

County officials appearing before a Senate committee earlier this month didn't outright oppose the bypass bill. But the engineer overseeing the county’s water expansion, Trent Thompson, suggested a private utility would be an unwelcome competitor as the county seeks customers to help repay $120 million in loans used to fund the project.

The battle over expanding water service in Bryan County stems from restrictions the Georgia Environmental Protection Division placed in 2013 on counties in the Savannah area that limit how much water they can withdraw from the Floridan aquifer. The caps were imposed after scientists concluded that excessive pumping was drawing saltwater into the aquifer.

Because of the restrictions on Bryan County, four wells are being drilled in neighboring Bulloch County to supply the Hyundai plant with up to 6.6 million gallons (25 million liters) of water daily.

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