What'll happen when we run out? 

Your water supply: going once, twice ...

The Apalachee River is as pristine a stream as you'll find on Georgia's Piedmont. From its headwaters in eastern Gwinnett, it rolls south to form the western border of the Oconee National Forest, where it empties into Lake Oconee.

Anglers like the river for its white bass and catfish. Canoeists like it for its bubbling rapids.

As a college student at the University of Georgia, Gaynor Bracewell fell in love with the granite slide the Apalachee washed over as it passed the quaint village of High Shoals.

Now, at 79, Bracewell likes the river for a different reason: If things go his way, it will make him $100,000 a year.

Bracewell owns the Apalachee. Well, not the river itself. But he owns rights to water flowing through the hydroelectric plant he built on a stretch of the river, not far from the sliding rock he visited in his college days.

Now, his home county, Oconee, is growing -- fast -- and could run out of drinking water in five years. But Bracewell has found an opportunity in the county's desperation: He's offering to sell Oconee a share of his water rights.

If the deal goes through, it will ripple beyond Oconee's borders. A new precedent will be set in Georgia, one where

water becomes subject to the same rules of commerce as peaches, DVD players and automobiles. For the first time, access to water would be not so much an inalienable right as it would be a commodity, delivered to the highest bidder.

The proposal comes as environmentalists, lawyers, engineers and businesses battle over whether Georgia should allow such water permit transfers all over the state. Advocates say allowing permits to be bought and sold would use the free market to manage the state's water supply problems. Critics fear permit trading would essentially put a "For Sale" sign on the state's streams, lakes and aquifers -- precisely as water is becoming more scarce.

North Georgia is among the fastest-growing regions in the country, which -- drought or no drought -- has placed more pressure on already sparse water supplies. The metro area will hit its water limit by either 2030, 2010 or tomorrow, depending on whom you ask.

"Once you start selling water, you can't sell it just to farmers or cities," says Stephen Draper, a leading critic of permit trading. "It's very difficult to write [legislation] crafted so that out-of-state buyers won't be able to buy [water], and then international water buyers won't want to come in, too."

Draper has a law degree, a business degree and a doctorate, all of which he's put to use in a 40-year career that's stayed sharply focused on water science, water engineering and water law. He began dealing with water as an engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Most recently, he served for three years as Gov. Roy Barnes' water policy adviser.

Under the best-case scenario, Draper says, buying and selling Georgia permits would mean the individuals, municipalities and corporations that owned water rights would replace the current steward, the state Environmental Protection Division. Profits might take precedence over fish and waterfowl.

At worst, frenzied permit trading would generate bidding wars, leaving rich areas able to afford water while poor areas went without. With special interests constantly lobbying regulators, more water might be pulled from one basin, parching its streams, while economically deprived towns would have to watch swollen rivers flow by because they couldn't afford a permit. As water became scarcer, the taps in the homes of the have-nots might run dry.

"It's incredibly hard to imagine that you turn on the tap and not get water," says Jeffrey Rothfeder, a nationally known author and critic of water markets. "If you look at the supply and demand issues that Atlanta is facing, there will be a time when the taps will be turned on, and there's just no water there."

Nine months after a heart attack, Gaynor Bracewell shuffles from room to room in his High Shoals home, pointing at old photographs, paintings and other sources of nostalgia.

He's proud of one enormous room remodeled into a Victorian-style banquet hall that serves as a shrine to his kin. Between carved wooden columns that line the walls hang oil paintings of his ancestors in Confederate uniforms. He can go on and on about which family member was injured in which battle. Less interesting to him is the controversial deal he's negotiating with Oconee County.

All Bracewell wants is to recoup the million dollars he's spent on his one-megawatt hydroelectric power plant.

When he first bought a 300-acre or so tract along the Apalachee back in the 1970s, his idea was to develop a touristy alpine village. But Helen, Ga., beat him to the punch.

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