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Water peace won't come easily
Federal officials get Florida, Alabama and Georgia to agree — to hold another meeting.
By CRAIG PITTMAN and MELISSA AUGUST, Times Staff Writers
Published November 2, 2007
From left, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist meet Thursday in Washington with Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne to discuss water issues.
To stave off an all-out water war, Bush administration officials convened a meeting in Washington on Thursday of governors and senators from Florida, Georgia and Alabama in hopes of negotiating a truce.
They emerged after a 37-minute meeting with an agreement to meet again in December, this time in Tallahassee and "hopefully, we will bring this thing to a successful, prudent, smart landing," Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said.
In the meantime, though, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would recommend reducing the water flowing into the Apalachicola River by 16 percent, holding more back to provide drinking water for Atlanta.
"I'm grateful for the relief," said Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue.
The three states have been fighting since 1990 over water withdrawals that affect the Apalachicola and Chattahoochee rivers. The tension has ratcheted up recently because of a record-setting drought that has struck the Southeast and nearly emptied a major reservoir.
Lake Lanier, which flows into the Chattahoochee, supplies most of Atlanta's drinking water. The corps controls the flow out of the lake. Georgia wants the corps to stop releasing so much water.
But the Chattahoochee, which flows into the Apalachicola, provides cooling for several power plants, including a nuclear power plant in Alabama.
And the amount of water flowing in the Apalachicola, as it gushes into the Gulf of Mexico in Florida's Panhandle, controls the health of Apalachicola Bay's $134-million seafood industry.
Complicating the situation further, certain flow rates in the rivers must be maintained for the health of several types of mussels and fish called sturgeon, all of which are on the endangered species list. The endangered species requirements limit the corps' ability to hold water back.
Because of the endangered species requirements, the corps' plan for withholding water must first win approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Agency officials promised to issue an opinion on the change within two weeks.
The corps estimates Lake Lanier has 120 days of readily available drinking water left. Georgia officials put the count at only 80 days.
Georgia leaders sued the corps last month, arguing that Georgia has sacrificed more than other states and that the federal government is putting endangered species before people. Georgia asked the court to order reductions in flow to the Apalachicola River by 60 percent or more if the drought continues. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 19.
Meanwhile Alabama and Florida leaders have accused Georgia of failing to plan ahead for how to supply water for Atlanta's burgeoning sprawl. Crist sent a letter to President Bush last week that said the flow in the Apalachicola was already so low it threatened the Panhandle's seafood industry.
Anyone who expected a quick resolution of the 17-year dispute should have known better, officials said after Thursday's meeting.
"There are lots of issues, and to expect that there will be one simple answer at one meeting is beyond possibility," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Tallahassee Democrat.