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Chances recede for water deal between Georgia, Florida and Alabama

POSTED: March 15, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The weekend announcement that the talks between Georgia, Florida and Alabama over an 18-year impasse on water issues have broken down gives little indication as to what is next in the battle between the states.

The negotiators for the three states and the federal government, as well as representatives of Georgia Power Co. and Alabama Power Co., signed confidentiality agreements keeping them from divulging information from the talks.

However, a source has told The Times that the primary issue continues to be storage capacity in Lake Lanier and the amount of water sent downstream from Lanier.

A statement from Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, also indicated the center of the dispute.

"(Georgia) Gov. (Sonny) Perdue’s recent comment that Georgia’s water needs are more critical than those of Alabama and Florida underscores the difficulty in reaching an agreement," Riley said. "Until Georgia accepts that the water needs of its people are no more important than the water needs of people in Alabama and Florida, we will never be able to conclude an agreement. The notion that Alabama and Florida should pay for Atlanta’s ever-increasing water needs is not something that Alabama will ever accept."

Georgia was dealt a setback in January, when the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington overturned an agreement between Georgia and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for water rights to Lake Lanier.

The contract included 20,675 acre-feet of water storage for the city of Gainesville, among others.

Alabama and Florida challenged the pact, arguing that Georgia doesn’t have any legal right to the federal reservoir, which was initially built for hydropower.

At present two things are happening. First, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will begin work on an interim operating agreement for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. The governors and federal officials reached terms for an interim agreement following a November meeting in Washington. That agreement, which reduced water flow into the Apalachicola River, will expire June 1.

Also pending before the corps is a request from Georgia to reduce the flow of water out of Lake Lanier.

Carol Couch, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, asked the corps to reduce the discharge from 750 to 550 cubic feet per second through the end of April. Her Feb. 11 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. The two lakes are on the lower Chattahoochee, south of Atlanta.

The comment period on that request ended last week.

At the same time, the dispute between the states will likely return to federal court. There are eight lawsuits in four federal courts regarding water issues between Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for Florida said officials are disappointed, but will continue to defend the state’s position.

"We appreciate everyone’s hard work over the past two months (the federal agencies, technical working staff, representatives of the governors’ offices) and were disappointed that the parties could not reach an agreement on the management of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River system," Sarah Williams said in a statement.

Riley didn’t close the door on further talks, but said his state is ready for court.

"While Alabama always stands ready to resume negotiations, we also are anxious to have our day in court," he said.

A federal judge from Minnesota, Paul Magnuson, has been appointed to hear the consolidated case in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Fla.

Magnuson met with the parties, which include a number of other litigants, in November, about the same time the states agreed to resume mediated negotiations. Any further hearings before Magnuson were postponed due to the talks. But that situation likely will change as Florida and Alabama have indicated their plans to rekindle the fight in court.



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