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No end in sight to legal fight over Lanier

POSTED: June 5, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Lake Sidney Lanier has become a political football in a high-stakes game involving the states of Georgia, Florida and Alabama, as well as the federal government.

But the fireworks didn't start in 1990 because of Lanier. Rather, it was a proposed reservoir on the Tallapoosa River near the Georgia-Alabama border that started all the fuss.

In recent years, though, the focus has been on two river systems: the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa and the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint. They are the subject of no fewer than seven federal lawsuits.

However, the next expected event in the tri-state water wars is an announcement of a modified interim operating plan for the ACF river system. The current interim plan is due to expire Saturday.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent its proposed plan to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in April. The proposal includes provisions to store additional fresh water in the basin during the winter and during drought periods while minimizing harm to the four listed species: the threatened Gulf sturgeon and three mussels, the endangered fat threeridge, the threatened purple bankclimber and the threatened Chipola slabshell.

The additional storage then is available later for continued support of the species as well as other authorized project purposes.

"The notable revisions proposed include the ability to store 50 percent of basin inflows as compared to 30 percent in the previous IOP and incorporation of a drought plan," corps spokesman Patrick Robbins said. "The corps also proposes three flow seasons versus the two in the previous plan and releases from Jim Woodruff Dam (on the Apalachicola at Lake Seminole) would vary based on month, basin inflow thresholds, and composite storage thresholds."

However, Florida, the most vocal opponent in the current process, argues that Georgia is unfairly benefitting from the corps' proposed plan. Also at issue is a ruling earlier this month by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington that overturned an agreement on water storage in Lake Lanier.

The court ruled that water storage, a key part of the long-term water plan for the region, was not a congressionally authorized use of Lanier, and set aside agreements between water customers and hydropower users.

Also on the horizon is the revision of 50-year-old operating manuals for the ACF basin.

"For the ACF basin, the only approved master manual was prepared in 1958 and does not even include the federal facilities at (lakes) West Point, Walter F. George or George W. Andrews," U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss said in January. "I was pleased to hear from Secretary (Pete) Geren personally that the corps is moving forward with updating these manuals, because it will allow the corps to make smarter decisions in their management of these river systems. We have underscored to him how important this action is."

Chambliss and Sen. Johnny Isakson also have worked to get Georgia, Florida and Alabama together and to force the corps of engineers to update a 20-year-old water control plan for the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa and Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basins. In 2006, Isakson and Chambliss held Senate hearings in Gainesville and Columbus to implore the corps to keep its commitment to update its outdated water control plan for the two river basins.

In 2007, Geren said he wanted to give court-ordered mediation time to work before ordering the update of the water control manuals. However, Geren gave his commitment to the senators that if and when mediation broke down and was not making progress, he would begin the update of the water control manuals. Geren's predecessor had committed to begin the update of the water control manuals on Jan. 2, 2007, but failed to honor that commitment.

It remains to be seen what happens when the corps announces the final version of the modified interim operating plan. However, one thing is clear: a long-term resolution appears to be in the distant future.



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