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Feds move deadline for states' water deal

Georgia also asks corps to cut water flow

POSTED: February 27, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Georgia, Florida and Alabama have been given at least an additional week to reach a settlement on their 18-year water dispute, which largely centers on water from Lake Lanier.

U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced he was giving the states more time to reach a compact. He had originally set Friday as the deadline.

"I believe the three states have made real progress toward reaching agreement," Kempthorne said. "I remain committed to seeing a resolution to these long-standing issues, and I know the three governors remain committed as well."

Govs. Sonny Perdue of Georgia and Charlie Crist of Florida wrote Kempthorne this week asking for more time.

While Crist was indefinite about the time needed, Perdue said in his letter that the process could be completed by March 1.

Perdue also asked for the continued involvement of the federal government in the negotiations. " am encouraged by the progress that we have made, and I believe that a short extension will allow us the time to continue working to find a solution," Perdue said in a statement Friday. "This was an aggressive timeline and Georgia remains committed to these negotiations."

In a Dec. 17 meeting in Tallahassee, Fla., the governors and Kempthorne set Feb. 15 as the deadline.
Perdue gave his first hint that a resolution by this week was not likely in a January interview with The Times, calling the Feb. 15 deadline "optimistic."

Crist, in his letter sent Friday, said the three states had met twice in January and again on Thursday.
"Although no agreements have been reached, Florida is encouraged by the progress to date and is amenable to extending these discussion," Crist wrote to Kempthorne.

Gov. Bob Riley, sounded a less enthusiastic tone Friday in a statement released by his office. " am disappointed that the three states were not able to reach a long-term solution for either of the two river basins by today," Riley said. "Alabama has decided to go the extra mile and agree to a brief extension of the negotiating period in the hope that a breakthrough will occur."

A spokesman for Riley told The Times the governor did not send a letter to the Interior secretary.

Since 1990, the three states have been at odds over water in the two river systems which bisect the states, the Appalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa.

The feud over water has ebbed and flowed during the past 18 years and has ranged from federally mediated negotiations to an assortment of seven current lawsuits in four different federal court districts.
The current drought, considered by experts to be a 100-year or exceptional drought, only exacerbated the schism between the states.

In October, Perdue asked President Bush to declare Georgia a disaster area and to override the federal environmental protections for mussels and sturgeon in Apalachicola Bay. That action drew angry responses from Riley and Crist in letters to Bush. The administration, through Kempthorne, summoned the three governors to Washington on Nov. 1 for a peace-making session. The meeting resulted in a rapid review of environmental impact in Florida and generated a reduction in water being sent from Georgia into Florida.

The Washington meeting was followed by the Tallahassee session. The two meetings in January included one at the National Conservation Training Center, which is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, at Shepherdstown, W.Va., 75 miles outside Washington.

On Feb. 5, while negotiations were under way, the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington reversed an earlier ruling on a legal challenge to an agreement over water storage in Lake Lanier.
The appeals panel threw out an agreement that Georgia reached with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for water rights to Lake Lanier, handing Alabama and Florida a major victory in the water wars.

The 2003 agreement with the corps would give Georgia about a quarter of Lake Lanier's capacity over the coming decades and is the foundation of Georgia's long-term plans for supplying drinking water to the rapidly growing Atlanta region.

Kempthorne, a former Idaho governor, is no stranger to multistate water disputes, having settled a long standing dispute between California, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico over the Colorado River. The 20-year pact was signed in December.

There has been no public report as to any major stumbling blocks between the Georgia, Florida and Alabama. However, Crist's letter on Friday revealed for the first time who is brokering the pact.

Bob Johnson, commissioner of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, was appointed by Kempthorne to head the federal team working to facilitate an agreement. Reclamation, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, is the nation's largest wholesale water supplier and the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the 17 Western states in which it operates. More notably, Johnson was a key player in negotiating the Western water settlement and has served as "Water Master" of the lower Colorado River.

In a related move, the director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a reduction in the flow of water from Buford Dam on Lake Lanier.

Carol Couch, in a letter dated Feb. 11, asked the corps to reduce the discharge from 750 to 550 cubic feet per second through the end of April. The letter cites the near full condition of West Point Lake and Lake Walter F. George as a part of the rationale for making the change.

"Our water quality modeling indicates that the dissolved oxygen water quality criteria can be meet with the reduced flows," Couch wrote in her letter to Col. Byron G. Jorns, district commander of the corps' Mobile district, which includes the Chattahoochee River.

In the supporting data sent with the letter, the state contends the reduction in flow could preserve 30,000 to 50,000 acre-feet of storage in Lanier. The 200 cubic feet per second reduction translates into approximately 130 million gallons of water per day.



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