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Appeal means a murky solution to water wars

POSTED: September 22, 2010 10:41 p.m.

The latest action in the tri-state water wars has left local water experts wondering if it'll ever end.

Florida filed an appeal Monday against a July ruling that protects Georgia from releasing more water to help endangered species downstream.

U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson rejected releasing more water from dams along the Chattahoochee River to benefit the gulf sturgeon, the fat threeridge mussel and the purple bankclimber mussel that live in the Apalachicola River. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's administration wants the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the decision.

A date for arguments hasn't been set. Water experts and Georgia officials are waiting to see what happens next.

"Florida downplayed what impact this July ruling had when it came out. The water wars are being fought in the courtroom but also in rhetoric," said Bert Brantley, spokesman for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. "This appeal confirms how big of a loss this really was for them, and it'll help us in the negotiations."

Since the decadeslong disagreement began, Florida has argued for more water to protect its endangered species.

Without this "trump card," Brantley said, Florida may be more likely to negotiate.

"This is a total victory for Georgia," he said. "If Florida's claim were true, we'd be operating Lake Lanier for the purpose of keeping these mussels alive, which never made sense to Gov. Perdue. This is a huge step forward because we never could give as much water as the endangered species act would require us to send down anyway."

In July 2009, Magnuson said he will severely restrict metro Atlanta's use of Lake Lanier in 2012 unless political leaders in Georgia, Alabama and Florida reach a deal to end 30 years of fighting over water usage.

Trying to wrap up talks before all three governors leave office this year, Perdue sent letters to Crist and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley earlier this month to request a meeting between the governors.

"He's always found that the most progress happens during and right after the governor meetings when they can all get together in a room. Since all three are going out of office, this is a unique point in time to be able to get something done," Brantley said. "He's very hopeful they can get something done by December."

In response letters, Riley has agreed to meet soon, but Crist wants to see more progress with each state's negotiation team before meeting, "so the governor meeting will be more fruitful," Brantley said.

Spokespersons for Crist and Rileycouldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.

"This is the only time when Florida hasn't had their way, and we're kind of excited about that," said Val Perry, executive vice president of the Lake Lanier Association.

"My personal opinion is the state of Florida doesn't care about the mussels but wants fresh water for development. You can't do that with salt water."

The appeal will likely delay the lawsuit and negotiation process even more, noted Perry, who is "disappointed" the governors haven't met more often about the issue.

"They promise to get it done again by December but also promised to get it done by last December," he said.

"Crist is the only one of them running for anything, so he may dig in for Florida because of his Senate election coming up."

Although the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Stakeholders group tries to stay out of the litigation, it wants to be included in any possible negotiation conversations, said interim president Wilton Rooks.

"The litigation path has been going on for 20 years, and it's not gotten us any closer to a resolution," he said.

"It feels like a dead-end path that will end up in the Supreme Court. It's indicative of the need for a different approach."

Negotiation is essential, Rooks said.

"At this point, we're moving into areas that have the potential of being contentious, but we've built relationships over the last year that could enable us to look more positively at the options to benefit the entire basin," he said. "We're not arguing what's good for me and bad for you. It has to be a win-win situation, or it runs the risk of not being sustainable. Everyone has the right to these waters."

Kit Dunlap, president of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said she isn't surprised about Florida's appeal.
"It goes back to the lawyers and back to the courts," she said. "Hopefully the judge will make a decision to bring this to the end. When Magnuson made a ruling about getting all three states to the table, I'm not sure Alabama and Florida really had that incentive to come to the table."

Unless negotiations and court rulings change drastically, the water wars won't end any time soon, said Dunlap, also involved with the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District and the 1071 Coalition, a nonprofit group that focuses on promoting healthy lake levels.

"In the general public's mind, I bet they're thinking, ‘Here we go again,'" she said. "Will this ever really come to an end?"

 



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