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New governors have water on their plates

Deal must forge deal with Florida, Alabama before judge's order limits supply in 2012

POSTED: December 5, 2010 12:30 a.m.

A solution to the water war with Alabama and Florida has eluded Georgia governors for nearly two decades, but Gov.-elect Nathan Deal is hopeful he will be able work out an agreement.

Under the gun of a court-imposed 2012 deadline, Deal said water will be one of his priorities after he takes office in January.

"I had the opportunity to meet with the governors-elect of Alabama and Florida at the Republican Governors Association meeting," Deal said. "We had a brief discussion on this important issue and I look forward to aggressively pursuing negotiations in hopes of a speedy resolution."

Though reluctant to get into the specifics of his plans, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor-elect has a thorough understanding of the issue from his 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"He was the lead Republican in the delegation on water, as it relates to the federal level. He has an in-depth knowledge of Georgia's position and the challenges presented by the positions of the other states," Robinson said.

Robinson said Deal hopes that Govs.-elect Rick Scott of Florida and Robert Bentley of Alabama, all of whom take office in January, will come to the table with open minds.
Multiple requests for comment were not returned by the offices of Bentley or Scott.

"There's new blood and we hope there can be new perspectives," Robinson said. "There's also a deadline. That hopefully will add some urgency to the negotiation."

For years, the three states have disagreed over the use of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin.

In July 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled water supply was not an authorized use of Lake Lanier. The ruling gave Georgia three years to get congressional approval to continue withdrawing drinking water from the lake.

If Congress does not act by 2012, only the cities of Gainesville and Buford would be allowed to continue to use Lake Lanier for drinking water, and at mid-1970s levels.

The ruling would reduce the amount of water Gainesville can withdraw to 8 million gallons per day. Currently, Gainesville and Hall County withdraw about 20 million gallons per day from Lake Lanier.

Georgia has appealed the ruling in federal court.

"The year 2009 really worked against us, in terms of the ruling in the suit in phase one, it was a tough stretch with the drought and then the ruling," said Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue.

But Brantley said 2010 was a much better year for Georgia. Magnuson ruled against Florida in phase two of the lawsuit when that state argued it needed more water downstream to support endangered species of mussels and sturgeon.

"Obviously our preference here is to get a negotiated settlement and end all the court battles, but if you look at the huge victory we had on phase two of the lawsuit this summer, that really took out one of Florida's main trump cards," Brantley said.

Brantley said one of Perdue's biggest successes on the water issue was a meeting with outgoing Govs. Bob Riley of Alabama and Charlie Crist of Florida last year in which the three governors were able to agree on the same data.

"One of the big problems is we were never dealing with the same numbers," Brantley said. "They had numbers, we had numbers, there was a lot of talking in circles because we never could agree on the same set of facts. Over the past year, we have made a lot of progress in terms of speaking the same language in these negotiations. I think we've advanced the ball downfield and I think it's going to be very easy for Gov.-elect Deal to pick the ball up."

Though Lake Lanier has become the focal point of the water war, Brantley said every region of the state has to be considered in negotiations.

"The governor has been very clear to the folks in North Georgia as well as the folks in middle Georgia and South Georgia, that he won't strike any deal that pits one part of the state against another," Brantley said. "It becomes a very difficult balancing act to make sure all these areas are protected.

"We could have signed a bad deal at any point over these eight years. There were deals that were offered that we didn't feel like were in the best interest of Georgia that the governor could have accepted if his only goal was to strike a deal."

Brantley said Perdue is confident that Deal is prepared to take over as the advocate for Georgia in the negotiations with Alabama and Florida.

"The key is getting to a deal that makes sense for Georgia. We think we have laid the groundwork that will allow them to start fresh with new governors and hopefully get to a good fair resolution that all three states can live with," Brantley said.



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