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Fla. governor says state will sue Georgia over water

POSTED: August 13, 2013 5:00 p.m.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Tuesday his state is going to sue Georgia over increased water consumption limiting flows to the Apalachicola River, drawing some bitter reaction from Georgia officials, including Gov. Nathan Deal.

“Gov. Scott’s threat to sue my state in the U.S. Supreme Court greatly disappoints me after I negotiated in good faith for two years,” Deal said.

“More than a year ago, I offered a framework for a comprehensive agreement. Florida never responded. It’s absurd to waste taxpayers’ money and prolong this process with a court battle when I’ve proposed a workable solution.”

And U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville. said, “This really is a sad political stunt to go about exercising a court battle over issues that have been litigated before. And I feel like Georgia is in a strong position to prevail again.”

Georgia’s U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Marietta, and Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie, issued a joint statement.

“The best solution to the ongoing tri-state water wars is a negotiated agreement among the governors of the three states. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently rendered a decision after over 20 years of litigation allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with updating water control in the affected basins. It is critical the Corps continues this important action while the governors of Georgia, Florida, and Alabama continue to seek a negotiated agreement,” they said.

Lewis Jones of Atlanta’s King & Spalding law firm, which has represented Atlanta, the Atlanta Regional Commission and other local governments in the matter, said he would not comment unless Florida sues.

Scott said in a statement that Florida must take such drastic action because it has been unable to negotiate a settlement in recent decades on how to allocate water between Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Florida’s step is an escalation in years of litigation.

“This lawsuit will be targeted toward one thing — fighting for the future of Apalachicola,” Scott said. “This is a bold, historic legal action for our state. But this is our only way forward after 20 years of failed negotiations with Georgia. We must fight for the people of this region. The economic future of Apalachicola Bay and Northwest Florida is at stake.”

Deal said that “while the timing (of Scott’s statement) seems to work for political purposes, it’s ironic this comes at a time when Florida and Georgia are experiencing historically high rainfall.

“The fastest and best resolution is an agreement, not a lawsuit going into an election year. On the flip side, the merits of Georgia’s arguments have consistently prevailed in federal court, and a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court would decide this issue in Georgia’s favor once and for all.”

A lawsuit would continue nearly 20 years of litigation between Georgia and Florida over water usage in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which includes Lake Lanier at its northernmost end. Lake Lanier has been the focal point of the “water wars,” which also have included Alabama, as it is the main drinking water source for metro Atlanta, as well as Hall County.

Florida and Alabama appeared to gain the upper hand in July 2009, when U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson imposed a three-year deadline for Georgia to find another source of water, have Congress reauthorize Lanier as a specially designated source of drinking water or negotiate a water-sharing agreement with Florida and Alabama.

Then, in September 2011, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed Magnuson’s decision. A three-judge panel said Congress always intended for the lake to be used as a source of drinking water for the Atlanta area and that previous decisions that said otherwise, including Magnuson’s ruling, were based on “a clear error of law.”

The case wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in June 2012, refused to hear appeals from Florida and Alabama.

At the time, the governors of Alabama and Florida weren’t ready to concede, with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s office characterizing the decision as “just one step on a long road.”

“There are many critical issues related to reliable river flows still to be decided, and Alabama will continue to fight to ensure that downstream communities receive the amount of water to which they are entitled under federal law,” said a statement issued by Bentley’s spokesman Jeremy King.

Florida’s oyster industry has seen a near-collapse in the last two years because of reduced water flow and drought, officials have said.

Earlier Tuesday, U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson held a U.S. Senate field hearing where they heard about the impact that drought and reduced water flows have had on Apalachicola Bay.

The federal government a day earlier declared a fishery disaster for those who harvest oysters out of the Gulf of Mexico. A federal official testified that would make oystermen eligible for aid should Congress agree to such relief.

Oystermen told the senators that people are leaving the area because of the huge drop-off in oyster harvests.

They complained that Georgia is taking more than its “fair share” of freshwater from the river system that feeds the bay.

“They’re grasping at straws right now,” said Val Perry, president of the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association.

“The oyster industry has had myriad problems and very few, if any of them, are the result of Georgia’s usage of water.”

If Atlanta didn’t take any water from Lanier, the 5,000 cubic feet per second that is required by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to flow into Apalachicola Bay would increase by just 300 cfs, Perry said.

“It’s a drop in the bucket,” he said.

Perry added that the $20 million economic impact of the oyster and support industries in Florida “pale in comparison to what this lake up here generates for North Georgia and the 4 or 5 million people who use this for drinking water.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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