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Water war heats up over spending bill surprise

Georgia officials angered by Shelby’s actions

POSTED: December 31, 2007 5:02 a.m.
A U.S. senator from Alabama has successfully inserted language into a massive year-end spending bill that blocks the federal government from updating the operating manuals for two river systems at the heart of the 18-year tri-state water war.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., wrote the prohibitive language into the bill during the summer; however, both of Georgia’s U.S. senators expressed surprise that it survived in the final version that passed the Senate late Tuesday night.

"The governors of Georgia, Alabama and Florida are finally at the negotiating table finding a way forward on this very difficult issue," said U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. "It is mind-boggling to see this language in the omnibus bill intended to block that progress."

Both Chambliss and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., expressed their displeasure with the amendment on the Senate floor late Tuesday night.

Shelby, in a statement released by his office, accused Georgia of saying one thing and doing another.

"It is disingenuous for Georgia officials to walk out of court-ordered mediation and later claim that they believe the solution should be left to the states," Shelby said. "I have long believed and hoped that the states would come to a mutually agreed upon solution, but it does not appear Georgia is willing to work towards that goal."

On Wednesday, Gov. Sonny Perdue issued a response through a spokesman who was informed of Shelby’s comments by The Times.

"As we saw on Monday, historic progress is being made by the governors of Florida, Georgia and Alabama, with vital input from Secretary (Dirk) Kempthorne and the involved federal agencies," said spokesman Bert Brantley. "It would be a shame for those not involved in the negotiations to try to impede the progress we are making."

This was not the first time Alabama lawmakers have attempted to put the restrictive language in an appropriations bill. In the fiscal year 2007 Energy and Water appropriations bill, similar language was removed by a House vote of 216 to 201.

On Dec. 11, all 13 House members from Georgia wrote a letter to the leaders of the House Appropriations Committee from both parties, asking that the Senate language, which it called "obstructionist," be removed from the House version.

"This obstructionist language is unproductive and hurts the chances for a resolution to the ongoing water conflict between the states of Georgia, Alabama and Florida," the Georgia lawmakers wrote.

The language did not appear in the version of the budget passed by the House this week.

However, Shelby, an influential member of the Senate Appropriations Committee that wrote the bill, prevailed in getting the amendment included in the Senate version.

Shelby’s amendment — which he has tried unsuccessfully to push through Congress in previous years — bars the agency from using funds to update the operating manuals. It also orders the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide more specific information about water withdrawals from the river basins.

The standoff over water manuals for two major river basins in the area has become a fundamental and at times emotional front in the years long water wars between the states, feuding that has intensified with this year’s record drought. The manuals — which govern how the corps manages water resources — have not been updated for years as the states have fought over water rights in court.

Georgia lawmakers have demanded new manuals, arguing that the current guidelines do not reflect their state’s rapid growth.

"The process of updating the manuals has been on hold for almost 20 years as litigation between the states has been ongoing," said Chambliss on the Senate floor on Tuesday.In 2006, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered that the corps proceed with its National Environmental Policy Act studies, which is the necessary first step in updating the water control manuals.

Alabama officials have fought the updates, accusing the corps of focusing on Atlanta’s needs at the expense of communities downstream. They argue that current allocations are unfair and that the corps should stay out of the fight until the states resolve it — either through negotiation or in court.

The corps moved toward Georgia’s side in October by announcing it would rewrite manuals for the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basin, which originates in North Georgia and runs southwest through Alabama.

Shelby initially wrote stronger language that would have prevented the corps from even beginning the updates, which take about two years to complete. That provision passed in committee this summer.

Chris Riley, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville, said the final language is very restrictive.

"It ties the hands of the Corps of Engineers from using any of the funds in its budget from being used in the update of the water control manuals," Riley said.

Both Chambliss and Isakson voted against the final Senate version on Tuesday. Deal also voted against House passage of the appropriations package on Wednesday.

Chambliss and Isakson said they would try to reverse the provision in next year’s appropriations bills.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.



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