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High court's decision only one facet of Georgia's water wars

The U.S. Supreme Court put an end to one skirmish in Georgia’s water war this week.

The high court ruled that Florida failed to prove Georgia was withdrawing so much water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers that it was hurting oyster production along the Gulf.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote: “Considering the record as a whole, Florida has not shown that it is ‘highly probable’ that Georgia’s alleged overconsumption played more than a trivial role in the collapse of Florida’s oyster fisheries.”

That ruling, which effectively put an end to the case filed in 2013, may have wide ramifications across the entire Chattahoochee and Flint River basins, as well as the Coosa River basin across Northwest Georgia.

However, that’s only one of the fronts in Georgia’s water war.

The lawsuits filed by the state of Alabama, Alabama Power Co. and other groups against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are still alive. Those lawsuits challenge the 2015 Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa Water Control Manual and the Corps’ management of Allatoona Lake.

Gil Rogers, director of the Georgia office for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he was not specifically aware of the status of the litigation today but said the water wars were far from over.

“We really need to be looking at a more collaborative approach to managing these complex (water) systems,” Rogers said. “Yes, the Supreme Court did issue an important decision (Thursday) but Alabama was not even a part of that litigation.”

Rogers said the “endless hamster wheel of lawsuits” has got the be resolved with political leadership to stop a flood of taxpayer dollars that have gotten no results for close to thirty years.

It seems like a long time ago when water monitors in Rome and Floyd County were bemoaning inter-basin transfers of water as a practice that could potentially be hurtful to the Coosa system.

The issue involved water systems in the metro-Atlanta area taking water from Lake Allatoona, or the Etowah River, and discharging all of their waste water into the Chattahoochee system.

Retired Rome City Manager John Bennett said he believes the decision will take some of the pressure off the metro-Atlanta metro to find other water sources to meet its growing needs.

Lake Allatoona seems to be the prime, and most likely, source for that water.

Any excess withdrawals from Allatoona could have had a detrimental impact on flow in the Etowah, which has been Rome’s primary source for drinking water for the last five years. That problem would be compounded by the return of waste water, not to the Etowah, but the Chattahoochee.

One of the positive side effects of the water war, Bennett said, was stepped up conservation efforts by the metro-Atlanta region.

Upper Coosa Riverkeeper Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, also executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, said that with Atlanta’s limited water supply and desire to continue its growth, the best way they can guarantee future water supplies is to continue the conservation efforts.

“Time will tell,” Demonbreun-Chapman said. “We humans are creatures of habit and once we start really had to create a (conservation) mindset, it takes a lot for us to shift off that. I don’t think any of the efficiency programs are growing anywhere.”

The closure of Plant Hammond may have had a beneficial impact on Georgia’s water disputes with Alabama, Bennett said.

Plant Hammond discharged super-heated water back into the Coosa River, an environmental concern particularly during times of low-flow. Couple that with the fact that measurements concerning water quality are done at the state line, which isn’t far west of the plant, and it could have lead to problems in court.

“I do believe that the fish population is healthier for not having that hot water discharge and relative levels of dissolved oxygen are healthier because of that,” Demonbreun-Chapman said. “There are still fish consumption advisories at Weiss Lake because of mercury (from air emissions) and those will eventually fade over time.”

Alabama’s lack of a comprehensive statewide water plan hasn’t helped the state’s claims that Georgia’s thirst for water has hurt growth in Alabama, primarily down the Chattahoochee, Emily Driscoll, senior communications manager with the Southern Environmental Law Center for Georgia and Alabama said.

Jeremiah Blanton named Parks and Rec sports manager

The Thornton Center gymnasium was empty, except for a videographer and a man dressed in athletic clothes pitching a tennis ball at the wall over and over.

COVID-19 had wreaked havoc on the 2020 spring athletic season, and Jeremiah Blanton was working his tail off, sweat dripping off his face. He was helping make short videos, so that kids could have something to help them polish their baseball skills even if they couldn’t play the game they loved.

Midway through once the camera stopped rolling, Blanton paused both hands resting on his knees and caught his breath.

“Man. I’m a little bit out of shape,” he said.

The pause lasted a second before he was back up and demonstrating another drill, making sure kids had plenty of ways to practice.

Fast forward just about a year and Blanton sits in his office at Rome-Floyd Parks and Recreation, fielding texts and phone calls by the minute. Mother Nature and Rome’s notoriously fickle rivers continue to wreak havoc with the spring baseball schedule. Blanton takes it in stride, because unlike last year, spring baseball is playing at least when it’s not raining and the fields aren’t flooded.

Blanton, who started playing sports at the recreation level in Rome before starring at Coosa High and then Shorter, has been named the new Rome-Floyd Parks and Recreation Sports Manager.

“I don’t think we could have found a better person or candidate than JB,” RFPRA Director Todd Wofford says, using the nickname that parks and recreation staffers call Blanton. “He grew up in our programs and has worked for us for about 15 years. One of the best things about him is that you can see how much he cares about the kids and the programs.”

Growing up, Blanton played on local fields starting with t-ball when he was seven.

“I played all the baseball age groups starting when I was seven. I played baseball, football and basketball,” Blanton says.

When asked for some of his favorite moments about growing up and playing sports in Rome, a big smile crosses his face.

“I remember we won the Santa Bowl when I played Mites (football). We dedicated that season to a classmate that passed away. That was really special,” he says.

He also mentions a trip to Grenada, Mississippi for the world series and being a part of an all-star basketball team that captured a state title when he was 11 or 12.

“That basketball team was loaded with a lot of great players,” he says. “It’s funny because back when I was playing we were Georgia Craft, Nations Bank or Garden Lakes Supermarket teams, because they sponsored us.”

Blanton’s athletic days didn’t end at the recreation level. At Coosa High School, Blanton starred as a three-sport athlete, earning All-Area recognition in both football and baseball as a senior. He played those sports as well as basketball all four years for the Eagles.

Blanton then took his talents to Shorter where he played baseball all four years.

“In 1998, we were the conference champions and went to regionals,” Blanton says. He has another cool memory from his Shorter days that no one else can claim.

“My senior year at Shorter in our first game we played against Lee University,” Blanton says. “In my first at bat, I hit a home run. That was the first home run hit at the new Ledbetter Complex.”

After some time working in schools and even coaching high school sports, Blanton moved to the recreation department and began work in the maintenance division in 2006. He served in various roles in that department until Dec. 2019 when he moved to the sports side and became the assistant sports manager.

Although Blanton enjoyed keeping the parks and fields looking great, he says he felt a calling to get back to where it all started for him.

“I felt like I had a lot to offer on the sports side. I’ve always been a firm believer that we can’t make this go without the parks guys. I know how hard those guys have to work to get the fields and parks ready every day,” he says.

Blanton now moves into the sports manager role vacated by Rick Haase, who recently retired after more than 35 years. He’s focused on baseball and adult sports and making sure more kids get a chance to be a part of the various parks and recreation programs.

“I feel like sports give kids the opportunity to develop and grow. It’s not about the wins and losses at this age. It’s about developing kids and being taught the right way,” Blanton says. “We hope to be able to come out with some more videos and have more free clinics. We want to be able to get into the schools and maybe even take a day or so and teach kids how to shoot a basketball or hit a baseball.”

Like many people, the stay at home order around COVID-19 last spring frustrated Blanton. Not because he didn’t want people to be safe, but because he hated kids not being able to have a spring sports season.

Remember the earlier note about Blanton working hard for the videos. All in all, Blanton starred in roughly 15 short videos for the series, bringing a level of enthusiasm and energy that can be seen anytime he’s around sports.

It’s that same enthusiasm and energy that permeates his words and actions as he talks about his new job. Especially when asked what he would say to parents or kids that might be hesitant to sign up for basketball, baseball, softball, football or another sport.

“I would definitely say come out and try it. If it’s not for you, you don’t have to do it again,” Blanton says. “I feel like most kids if they try it, they will enjoy it. I think a lot of kids are nervous especially when they are younger. Most of them when they get into it and get going will love it.”

Blanton also mentions the free clinics parks and recreation offers throughout the year in several sports as a great way to introduce some kids to the sport.

Sports isn’t just about youth either. Parks and recreation continues to try to restart a dormant adult sports program. Adult basketball is a few games into its season, and adult softball is currently registering. Getting those programs up and running is something Blanton really wants to see happen.

“What we really need for adult sports is for people to come in and register. We have seven teams in adult basketball and everything is going good so far. We’re aiming to do the same with adult softball,” he says. “I know a lot of people are hesitant to register, because we’ve talked about it in the past and haven’t been able to do it. We are doing it now, but we can’t have a league if we don’t have teams.”

Blanton’s phone lights up again and his eyes dart over to read the text. The new job comes with a lot of questions, emails, phone calls, texts and more, but he doesn’t want that to dissuade anyone from reaching out.

“I do want people to know I’ll listen to them, and I’ll talk to them. They may not always like the end results, but this is a process and we want the kids and the parents to have a good experience,” he says. “If there is anything I can do for somebody, I’m always glad to help. And if I don’t know the answer to the question, I’ll do my best to find the answer.”

Barry Mount, a student at Model Elementary School

Elections, police, COVID-19 highlight lawmakers' work in Georgia session

ATLANTA — Elections, pandemic recovery and the echoes of last summer’s protests against police in Georgia dominated a 2021 legislative session marked by bitter divisions between Georgia’s political parties.

The session, which wrapped up Wednesday and will return next January, was the General Assembly’s first since the 2020 election cycle upended statewide politics as Democrats notched historic wins and Republicans moved to rewrite dozens of voting laws.

Both sides put off disagreements to largely repeal Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law that had been on the books since the Civil War and helped fuel protests over police brutality and racial injustice that swept the country for months starting last May.

While largely peaceful, those protests boiled over at times in Atlanta with damage done to police cars, businesses and state public-safety offices, ultimately prompting Republican lawmakers to pass a law that places tight limits on how much Georgia cities and counties can cut their local police budgets.

Budgeting was also top of mind for lawmakers this year after they slashed more than $2 billion last year from Georgia schools, troopers, prisons, mental-health and other social services due to the economic slowdown from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Piles of proposals hit a wall as lawmakers closed shop Wednesday, leaving many high-profile measures stalled. The casualty list included legislation to legalize online sports betting in Georgia and allow in-person visits between family members and loved ones at hospitals and nursing homes during emergency times like the pandemic.

Those bills that failed to reach Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk this year will have another chance to do so in 2022 for the second half of the two-year term.

Jim Crow or better elections?

Battle lines formed after Democrats claimed victory in the 2020 presidential election and the U.S. Senate runoffs, handing the party key statewide wins for the first time in decades and cementing the idea that years of hard campaigning and demographic changes have shifted voting patterns in their favor.

Republican leaders quickly counter-attacked by holding General Assembly hearings to air former President Donald Trump’s unfounded voter-fraud claims, which laid the groundwork for proposing broad changes to Georgia’s election system in the session.

Ultimately, lawmakers passed a measure along party lines March 25 that adds identification requirements for mail-in voting, confines absentee-ballot drop boxes inside local election offices and polling places and bans non-poll workers from handing out food and drinks to people in line to vote within 150 feet of polling places during elections.

Those changes, along with new rules allowing state election officials to take over poor-performing county election boards, sparked outrage from Democrats and voting-rights advocates who declared voter access for Black and low-income Georgians will be set back worse than at any time since the Jim Crow era.

“After witnessing the GOP gutting of voting rights and inaction on issues like expanding access to health care, Georgia voters are engaged, empowered and know exactly who’s fighting against them,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, who chairs the state Democratic Party. “Georgia Republicans are in for a rude awakening in 2022.”

Republican leaders – from Gov. Brian Kemp to party leaders in both General Assembly chambers to the state’s election chief, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger – have blasted Democrats’ push to frame the election changes as racist acts of voter suppression.

They argue the law changes aim to bolster confidence in Georgia elections and expand voter access, noting the now-enacted bill scraps the state’s controversial signature-verification process for absentee ballots in favor of a voter ID requirement and gives counties the ability to open polls for more hours on weekends during the early-voting period.

“This is not ‘Jim Crow,’” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton. “Nobody is getting lynched for going to vote. Matter of fact, we don’t want 60% to vote – we want 100%. … Stop with the rhetoric.”

Ups and downs for criminal justice

Beyond election issues, Republican and Democratic leaders also sparred over legislation focused on guns, policing and criminal justice – many of which fell by the wayside after rounds of intense debate.

Efforts to loosen rules on interstate gun-carry permits, prosecute violent protesters and create a driver education program on how to interact with police during traffic stops all fell short of final passage amid stern opposition from Democratic leaders.

But Republican lawmakers did push through a measure that blocks most city and county governments from slashing their police budgets by more than 5% over a 5-year span, which opponents called an attempt by state authorities to strip control from local officials over how to police their communities.

Supporters argued the budget limits would help stave off any future moves by local officials to cripple their police forces, pointing out Atlanta and Athens officials nearly joined several cities outside Georgia in shrinking their police budgets after the summer’s heated protests.

Those protests prompted Democratic lawmakers to file dozens of bills on criminal-justice issues this session including more training for officers in de-escalation techniques, bans on using no-knock warrants and choke holds during arrests, a citizen-led review board for officer-involved shootings and legislation outlawing private prisons.

The only proposal to gain bipartisan support and clear the legislature was an overhaul of the citizen’s arrest law, which was scaled back so that only business owners can briefly detain people who commit crimes on their premises, as well as off-duty or out-of-jurisdiction police officers.

The repeal measure came after 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead in February 2020 while jogging near Brunswick in an encounter with two white men who suspected him of vandalizing a nearby house under construction. The pair claimed they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest.

COVID-19 and the pocketbook

Meanwhile, throughout the bouts of fighting and the stretches of collaboration, the COVID-19 pandemic loomed large over the 2021 session as lawmakers faced twice-weekly infection tests and sought to patch up the state’s $27 billion budget.

Taking cues from the governor, budget drafters in the state Senate and House of Representatives avoided the spending cuts imposed last year that sliced $2.2 billion from state agencies, particularly public schools that receive a huge chunk of annual tax revenues.

Lawmakers hailed Georgia’s economic rebound since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago as fuel to restore budget funding for schools with a mix of state dollars and federal emergency aid – though Democratic lawmakers pushed unsuccessfully to raise new revenues by ditching some lucrative tax breaks and raising the levy on cigarette sales. Instead, lawmakers approved even more tax exemptions.

Democrats’ calls to fully expand Medicaid benefits for low-income Georgians were also blocked by Republicans long opposed to broadening the costly program’s scope, despite a steep jump in eligible recipients amid the pandemic. Lawmakers did pass a bill to automatically enroll some 60,000 Georgia children in Medicaid who already receive food stamps.

Lawmakers also scuttled another attempt to legalize some forms of gambling beyond the Georgia Lottery by shooting down a bill to permit regulated sports betting in the state, pitched as way to raise more funding for the HOPE Scholarship program and need-based scholarships.

Also on the chopping block was a measure that would have given Georgia hospital patients and elderly-care residents isolated by the pandemic a limited window to meet in person with a legal representative or caregiver, who could be a family member. It was gutted before finally stalling on Wednesday.

The General Assembly next turns its attention to redrawing the boundaries of Georgia’s legislative and congressional districts, marking a Republican-led process that is certain to drum up the same fiery backlash seen from Democrats during the fight over election changes.

Hearings on redistricting are set to take place at the state Capitol in Atlanta sometime this fall or winter.

MLB All-Star Game pulling out of Georgia in protest of new voting law

ATLANTA — Major League Baseball announced Friday it is pulling this summer’s All-Star Game from Georgia in response to the General Assembly’s passage of an election bill that has been heavily criticized as voter suppression.

“Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box,” Commissioner of Baseball Robert D. Manfred Jr. wrote in a prepared statement.

“In 2020 … we proudly used our platform to encourage baseball fans and communities throughout our country to perform their civic duty and actively participate in the voting process. Fair access to voting continues to have our game’s unwavering support.”

Baseball’s decision to relocate the All-Star Game from Truist Park in Cobb County follows corporate criticism of the law by Atlanta-based companies, primarily Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed the voting bill along party lines on the afternoon of March 25, and Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law later that day.

The sweeping measure overhauls the absentee voting process and early voting in Georgia.

It replaces the current signature-match method for verifying absentee ballots with a requirement that absentee voters provide a driver’s license or one of several other forms of identification.

The law expands opportunities for early voting on weekends, a provision Kemp and other Republicans have pointed to in arguing the legislation is not aimed at restricting voting access.

The provision that has drawn the strongest criticism prohibits people who aren’t poll workers from handing out food and drink to voters waiting in line outside polling places. Republicans have said the provision is intended to prevent illegal electioneering by candidates or campaign workers within 150 feet of the polls.

Democrats around the country — notably President Joe Biden — had called on Major League Baseball to pull the All-Star Game out of Atlanta since passage of the election law.

But in Georgia, Democrats have responded by opposing the move because of the economic consequences of losing the game.

“Disappointed MLB will move the All-Star Game, but proud of their stance on voting rights,” 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams wrote on Twitter. “Georgia GOP traded economic opportunity for suppression.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms expressed similar sentiments and warned further fallout from the voting law could follow.

“Unfortunately, the removal of the MLB All-Star Game from Georgia is likely the first of many dominoes to fall, until the unnecessary barriers put in place to restrict access to the ballot box are removed,” Bottoms wrote.

Georgia Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna, whose state House district includes Truist Park, said she was disappointed by the move.

“The American Rescue Plan exists because of the very Georgia voters who will be most impacted by the economic brunt of the decision to pull the MLB All-Star Game,” she said. “At the same time, I absolutely understand the disgust and frustration with our leadership in Georgia that ultimately led to this decision.”

Kemp released a statement after Friday’s announcement accusing Major League Baseball of caving in to “fear, political opportunism and liberal lies.

“Georgians — and all Americans — should fully understand what the MLB’s knee-jerk decision means: Cancel culture and woke political activists are coming for every aspect of your life, sports included. If the left doesn’t agree with you, facts and truth do not matter.”

Both Kemp and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston attributed baseball’s decision to lies from Abrams about the new law.

“This decision is not only economically harmful,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “It also robs Georgians of a special celebration of our national pastime free of politics.”

In a news release, the Atlanta Braves wrote that businesses, stadium employees and baseballs fans will all be hurt by the decision.

“The Braves organization will continue to stress the importance of equal voting opportunities, and we had hoped our city could use this event as a platform to enhance the discussion,” the release stated. “Our city has always been known as a uniter in divided times, and we will miss the opportunity to address issues that are important to our community.”

The new voting law has drawn the largest national outcry against Georgia since the General Assembly passed religious freedom legislation in 2016 that critics slammed as discriminatory. It drew boycott threats from local and national businesses, including the film industry, and then-Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed it.

Manfred said Major League Baseball still plans to celebrate the memory of Braves Hall of Fame slugger Hank Aaron, who died in February, as part of the All-Star Game festivities.

A decision has not been made on a new host city for the game.