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States may keep trying to reach water deal

Tri-state battle headed to court, but negotiations may continue

POSTED: August 20, 2008 5:01 a.m.

While the case over water in Lake Lanier is scheduled to move into a federal courtroom later this year, the judge hearing the case says the states need to reach an agreement on their disputed issues.

In the 18 years since the so-called tri-state water wars began, there have been many moments in which Georgia, Alabama and Florida were so close to a deal.

Gov. Sonny Perdue said in the past he has been "at the church door, waiting to go down the aisle" with Alabama but was stood up.

A year ago, the furor between the three states, particularly Georgia and Alabama, reached a fever pitch to the point that President Bush intervened and dispatched Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to mediate a settlement.

The rhetoric quelled as the chief executives and their top environmental officials began to negotiate. Little is known about the talks, which extended from November to March before breaking down. The states and the federal government signed strict confidentiality agreements that kept them from revealing what was discussed.

In March, Kempthorne announced that the talks were over and that no agreement had been reached.
This week, reacting to federal judge Paul Magnuson's announcement that the water supply case would go forward, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley gave a hint that he might be willing to continue talks.

"The federal judge handling these cases has emphasized the need for the three states to work out a long-term solution to this problem," Riley said. "He is certainly right, and I remain ready to meet any time, anywhere, with Gov. Perdue and Gov. (Charlie) Crist to work toward an equitable agreement for sharing this vital natural resource."

Riley served three terms in Congress before being elected governor in 2002. A conservative Republican, he was close friends with U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville, when they served together on Capitol Hill.

He minces no words when it comes to water and Georgia.

"Alabama believes that Atlanta's current withdrawals also violate federal law," Riley said in a statement this week.

Alabama's beef with Georgia also extends to the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basin, which bisects the two states. The Coosa is formed by the convergence of the Etowah, which begins in the mountains of Lumpkin County, and the Oostanaula, which flows from the north central portion of the state. It is a primary water source in several Northeastern and Central Alabama communities.

The Tallapoosa, in West Georgia, was the genesis of the dispute between the states when Georgia proposed a reservoir in Haralson County on the western border.

But despite the harsh talk and breakdown of negotiations, a spokesman for Perdue said the relationship between the two chief executives remains cordial. The two see each other at meetings of groups like the Southern Governors Conference and the Republican Governors Conference.

"They certainly do talk when they are together at events about a wide range of issues that are affecting our region, including water," said Bert Brantley, Perdue's spokesman.

"Gov. Perdue has been very clear that he prefers a negotiated settlement where all parties reach a mutually beneficial decision. Each state knows exactly where the others stand after the lengthy and detailed talks the three governors had over the winter."

Like Riley, Perdue is willing to meet, if there is reason to believe they could make progress. Riley said that will happen only when someone, particularly Georgia, is willing to bend.

"The three states should reach an agreement, but only if there is a recognition that each state has to make compromises," Riley said.

No meetings have been scheduled. This week, Georgia has filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court in a separate case involving water storage in Lanier.



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