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Interior chief holds water talks with governors of Ga. and Ala.

POSTED: October 30, 2007 5:05 a.m.

U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne met privately Friday with the governors of Georgia and Alabama on their struggle over water shortages in a prolonged drought, but withheld details on their talks until a tri-state meeting on the issue next week.

Kempthorne said he believes Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley can work through the nearly two decade-old dispute over how much water Georgia's reservoirs must share with Alabama and Florida.

"I think this is as frank a discussion as we've ever had," Riley told reporters following the afternoon meeting in Montgomery, Ala.

The interior secretary declined to discuss details in advance of a meeting Thursday in Washington, D.C., with the Georgia and Alabama governors along with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and congressional delegations from the three states.

"Out of respect for the way these negotiations are going, we're not going to be very specific," Perdue said after a meeting earlier Friday in Atlanta. "Things are in the works."

Kempthorne said his Friday meeting with Perdue had "the right atmosphere and the right tone." He stressed that the states need to reach an agreement and keep the federal courts out of it.

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said in Montgomery that a high level federal inter-agency team is being formed with a "straightforward goal of acting with urgency to prevent an emergency."

He also stressed that any solution to the crisis would have to include interim steps to address the immediate water shortage problems as well as long-term solutions to keep them from resurfacing.

Connaughton said they hope to have specifics of a plan after the meeting in Washington. That meeting, he said, would be followed by several more weeks of data development. He said it wasn't possible at this point to give a timeline for any concrete actions.

Kempthorne, Connaughton and Perdue were joined by U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson — both Georgia Republicans — and representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Alabama U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions joined the Montgomery meeting.

Riley had called Thursday for a truce between Alabama, Georgia and Florida, all of which are locked in a decades-long fight over federal reservoirs. The drought — which government forecasters reported could soon get worse — has intensified the jockeying.

Caught in the middle is the Corps of Engineers, which says it is complying with federal guidelines by sending millions of gallons of water from Georgia downstream to Florida and Alabama to supply power plants and protect federally threatened mussel species.

Almost a third of the Southeast is covered by an exceptional drought, the worst category, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. The burgeoning Atlanta area, with a population of 5 million, is in the middle of the affected region.

Georgia lawmakers announced plans Thursday for a network of state reservoirs, while the governors of Alabama and Florida warned that Georgia's consumption threatens their downstream states.
The Georgia plan would involve building at least four new reservoirs and expanding existing ones. Lawmakers did not say how much state funding would go toward bolstering the state's water supply.
Perdue has ordered state agencies and public utilities to reduce usage, and authorities have banned outdoor watering in most of the state.

Georgia also sued the Corps last week, demanding it send less water downstream. That brought objections from the governors of Alabama and Florida.

"Georgians are willing to do their share in understanding and sharing as good neighbors, but we respectfully ask the same of our neighbors," Perdue said at a news conference following the Friday morning meeting.



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