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River basin group aims for unity in water-sharing talks

POSTED: September 29, 2013 12:01 a.m.

Five years ago, a group of people interested in the future of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin began looking to accomplish something politicians couldn’t do in two decades of legal wrangling — find solutions to sharing water.

And do it, mind you, with agreement among all parties involved.

“That was absolutely necessary, because if we had gone another route of saying majority rules, then people would not have stayed with it,” said Wilton Rooks, a vice president with the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association and one of the ACF Stakeholders’ founding members.

The group not only hung together but has raised $1.4 million so far to pay for work related to a data-driven study and a set of water-sharing recommendations it can present to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the three states involved in protracted litigation: Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

The corps is crafting a water control manual to be used in managing the ACF, which includes the Upper Chattahoochee basin and Lake Lanier.

The group’s governing board, set to hold a quarterly meeting this week at Unicoi State Park in Helen, also plans to show its findings to leaders in the three states.

“We wrestled with organization issues probably the first year and a half, then began the more serious work after that, with respect to some specific projects,” Rooks said.

The ACF Stakeholders’ work led to contracts with consultants to provide technical help.

“Things are sort of coming to a head now,” Rooks said.

Aris Georgakakos of Georgia Tech’s Georgia Water Resources Institute “is producing an enormous amount of (data) that’s based on the stakeholders’ thoughts about how to better utilize the water in the basin,” Rooks said. “In one sense, we’re having to sort of drink water from a fire hose, as his staff is producing volumes of information.”

The information is “beginning to focus in on some specific options that will have the most benefit for all the stakeholders,” Rooks said.

He believes the work is groundbreaking.

“The states have always gone to the courts with their experts and have argued for their particular interests ... but nobody has ever said, ‘OK, what could be good for everybody?’” Rooks said.

“This is a pioneering activity related to how a complex watershed like this can be utilized and managed more efficiently.”

In nearly 20 years of litigation, 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 thirsty Georgians 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.

Georgia, which successfully appealed the decision in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, gained further leverage in June 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal of the 11th Circuit ruling by Florida and Alabama.

Tensions have flared again, as Florida Gov. Rick Scott has threatened to sue Georgia over increased water consumption limiting flows into the Apalachicola Bay.

In an Aug. 13 statement, Scott said the Sunshine State must take such drastic action because it has been unable to negotiate a settlement in recent decades on how to allocate water between the three states.
“This lawsuit will be targeted toward one thing — fighting for the future of Apalachicola,” Scott said at the time.
A possible lawsuit triggered immediate reaction among Georgia officials.

“More than a year ago, I offered a framework for a comprehensive agreement,” Gov. Nathan Deal said. “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.”

Even Apalachicola subbasin members of ACF Stakeholders aren’t thrilled by the prospect of a lawsuit.

“I told (Scott) we haven’t got five years,” said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association in Florida. “Five years just to get it into the court system and then another five years fighting and wasting a bunch of money, I think that’s just a waste of time. Our bay won’t last long enough.”

Dan Tonsmiere, executive director of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, said a lawsuit would serve “as a long-term fix, if it’s a fix at all.”

Rooks said that some of the recent data being produced through modeling studies “is really revealing some interesting characteristics about the water in the basin during the average year and dry year.”

“That’s going to be a big part of the Unicoi meeting,” he added.

Overall, the past five years of work have been productive, Rooks said.

“We’re on the watch list for a lot of people,” he said. “The states, particularly Georgia, have very actively participated in our process. They’ve attended the governing board meetings and provided input to our documents as they have evolved.”

Rooks said that one of the group’s guidelines “is not whether a particular decision is ideal ... but can you live with it? That’s resulted in some real constructive recommendations and views on how the water in the basin can be utilized.”

The ACF Stakeholders’ chairman, Billy Turner of Columbus, said he believes the group has made a lot of progress, “but we’re into what I’d call the more difficult part of trying to take all this information and see if we can come to consensus.”

And with that agreement comes “the hope we can be the basis for some solution to the water wars.”

A draft report could be released in March, Turner said.


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