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Florida backs away from water deal

POSTED: November 14, 2007 5:05 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- The state of Florida on Friday backed away from a temporary truce brokered by the Bush administration to help settle a long-standing water war, now heightened by an ongoing drought, involving Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

In a letter to federal officials, Florida's environmental protection chief said the state opposes an arrangement announced in Washington last week under which the Army Corps of Engineers would cut river flows into Florida and Alabama in order to capture more water for Georgia.

The river reductions would cause a "catastrophic collapse of the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay" and "displace the entire economy of the Bay region," wrote Michael Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist raised no such objections at a press conference in Washington last week, where Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne hailed the governors for coming together as good neighbors. Kempthorne said the temporary changes in river operations would come as the states worked toward completing a longer-term pact by Feb. 15.

"I think that what we had today was a great discussion, a great understanding," Crist said at the press conference.

But he has since come under heavy criticism from the fishing industry, local leaders and environmentalists.

"I think what Crist is starting to hear is that in the past the environmentalists were taking the lead on this, but now you have a really broad coalition -- the chamber of commerce is speaking out, and Realtors, recreational fishermen, people in the restaurant industry," said Kevin Begos, executive director of a Franklin County, Fla., task force that represents oyster and seafood interests. "They're all saying these flow cuts wouldn't just affect a few mussels. They would put a lot of people out of jobs."

Eric Eikenberg, Crist's deputy chief of staff, said Crist never committed to supporting the proposal and that the state reached its decision after taking a closer look at it.

Even though the planned flow reductions were part of what others saw as a fragile compromise, he said he did not think Florida's opposition would undercut negotiations among the states.

Eikenberg declined to say whether Florida would sue to stop the plan, saying the state would not decide its next move until after the federal Fish and Wildlife Service issues its opinion next week on whether the proposal would violate the Endangered Species Act by jeopardizing several protected species of mussels and sturgeon in Florida.

But he acknowledged that legal action is an option, and the three states have generally shown a readiness to take their water qualms to court over the past two decades.

Asked about Florida's decision Friday, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue called the announcement "unfortunate" but said he hoped the "spirit" of the negotiations could win support from all three states.

"We're proceeding judiciously," Perdue said in Savannah. "Hopefully the people of Florida will recognize, (with) the lower flows that will result, that those little mussels could just ease a little further down to the water."

A spokesman for Kempthorne said the Interior secretary remains committed to working with the governors toward a solution.

The regional water dispute centers on how much water the Corps holds back in federal reservoirs near the head of two river basins in north Georgia that flow south into Florida and Alabama. The fast-growing Atlanta region relies on the lakes for drinking water. But power plants in Florida and Alabama depend on healthy flows in the rivers, as do farms, commercial fisheries, industrial users and municipalities. The Corps also is required to release adequate flows to ensure habitats for species protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Under the plan unveiled last week, the Corps would reduce flows by about 16 percent in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin that runs along the Alabama-Georgia border into Florida's Apalachicola Bay.

While Perdue hailed the proposal, Crist had little to boast about aside from hosting the next governors' meeting in Tallahassee, scheduled for mid-December.

"We were all certain down here that he had sold out and was not fighting for Florida," Begos said. "Maybe it was a misunderstanding, or maybe he's just bowing to pressure ... but if he does really stand up and fight for it we do appreciate that."



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