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Cagle calls Florida action ‘shocking’

Sunshine State says it will sue Army Corps of Engineers over alleged violations

POSTED: June 24, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said Friday that he was shocked by Florida’s announcement that it would file suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for alledgedly violating federal law.

"Today’s news is not only shocking, but extraordinarily disappointing," Cagle said in a statement released by his office. "I find it unconscionable that the state of Florida would choose to elevate the water needs of the bankclimber and fat threeridge mussel over the needs of millions of human beings in Georgia."

The notice was given in a seven-page letter from Florida’s top environmental official alleging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has violated the Endangered Species Act.

The letter, dated Thursday, alleges that the corps’ management of reservoirs in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin has jeopardized the Gulf sturgeon fish and three mussels: the fat threeridge, purple bankclimber and Chipola slabshell, all listed as threatened or endangered by the federal government.

Michael Sole, Florida’s secretary of Environmental Protection, sent the letter to Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, top officials of the Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been in a long battle about reducing flows as part of the corps’ drought management plans to keep more water upstream in Georgia. Kempthorne led a federal effort to negotiate a settlement in the 18-year battle between the three states that ended in failure in March.

"The drought has choked our economy, forced hundreds of small businesses to the brink of bankruptcy, destroyed the value of some family homes and drained reservoirs," Cagle said. "All the while, Florida claims they need our water flow for three species of mussels."

The corps, the likely defendant in a lawsuit, declined to respond.

"We don’t comment on active litigation," said Pat Robbins, a spokesman for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Mobile, Ala.

Florida and Alabama rely on downstream water flows for power plants and commercial fisheries and have been in a legal and political battle with Georgia over water rights since 1990. The fight has intensified as a drought has gripped the Southeast.

Sole said in the letter that the corps can avoid litigation by initiating "formal consultation on all of its discretionary dam and reservoir operations." That would include Lake Lanier.

He also asks that the agency does not interfere with basin inflow during the spawning season.

It is the fourth time that Florida has given notice of an intent to sue the corps for violating the Endangered Species Act. The first was a 16-page letter sent Nov. 5, 2004, demanding, among other things, that the corps terminate all water withdrawal permits from Lake Lanier.

The most recent, prior to Thursday, was on Feb. 22, 2008, when the three states were still engaged in negotiations to settle the long-standing dispute. That letter challenges the Emergency Drought Operations plan, which was implemented in November 2007.

Kevin Begos, executive director of the Franklin County (Fla.) Oyster and Seafood Task Force, applauded the action."This isn’t a quick solution, but we feel like the pressure needs to be kept on Georgia, especially to address some of the comprehensive issues for the whole basin."

Begos concedes that his organization’s concern is as much about the oyster and seafood business as it is about protecting mussels and sturgeon.

"We feel the whole ecosystem should be part of the water management, but there is legal precedent for that. The Endangered Species Act is one of the strongest legal tools," he said.

If filed separately, the suit would become the eighth lawsuit over water issues between the federal government and the three states. The Endangered Species Act includes a provision requiring a 60-day notice before filing suit alleging a violation by a federal agency.



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