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Water group asks Fla. to delay suit against Ga.

POSTED: October 4, 2013 12:30 a.m.

HELEN — A group seeking water-sharing solutions for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin passed a resolution Thursday asking Florida Gov. Rick Scott “to delay any further legal action or pursue any current lawsuit” against Georgia over freshwater consumption in the basin.

The ACF Stakeholders’ governing board, taking the action at the end of a two-day meeting at Unicoi State Park, asked for the delay until it “has published its recommendations for a sustainable water management plan.”

The resolution states the group has worked for four years to develop such a plan and expects to complete the effort by June 2014.

The group “is convinced that collaborative efforts are essential to finding sustainable water management solutions,” the resolution states.

Melissa Sellers, Scott’s communications director, couldn’t be reached for comment. Patrick Gillespie, press secretary for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, declined comment.

The ACF Stakeholders has been working for several years toward solutions in the basin, which straddles the Georgia, Florida and Alabama river basins.

Officials have said the group has raised more than $1.3 million so far to pay for work related to a data-driven study and a set of water-sharing recommendations officials they say they hope to eventually present to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the three states.

The group was formed largely because the states haven’t been able to agree on key water-sharing issues.

Much of the controversy centers on Lake Lanier, which serves as the main drinking water source for populous and ever-growing metro Atlanta.

Two decades of litigation seemed to tilt in Georgia’s favor in June 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal of the 11th Circuit ruling by Florida and Alabama.

But tensions have flared again as Scott has carried through on an Aug. 13 vow to sue Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court over increased water consumption that has limited flows in the Apalachicola Bay, where the seafood industry has been seriously struggling.

“This lawsuit will be targeted toward one thing — fighting for the future of Apalachicola,” Scott has said.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s spokesman Brian Robinson retorted by saying, “The only ‘unmitigated consumption’ going on around here is Florida’s waste of our tax dollars on a frivolous lawsuit.

“Florida is receiving historically high water flows at the state line this year, but it needs a bogeyman to blame for its poor management of Apalachicola Bay.”

The lawsuit “caused some issues with our progress,” said Billy Turner, ACF Stakeholders chairman, after the governing board’s meeting. “There are some concerns about what the implications of our work with regard to that, which essentially has caused us to not be able to approve a couple of steps that we wanted our modeling consultants to move forward with.”

The Atlanta Regional Commission and Metro Atlanta Chamber particularly have raised issues about the public nature of the group’s processes and study, Turner said.

“We’re on the horns of a dilemma,” Turner said. “We want to be very open. That was our whole process. The ACF (Stakeholders’) idea was it’s better to share all this in the sunshine and let the chips fall where they may. Apparently, there are some attorneys who have concerns about the potential use of data that we developed that could go against any party.”

He added: “The outcome we would really like would be for everyone to say they wouldn’t use any of our raw data. They would wait until we finished the (plan) and then they could use anything that’s in the final product.

“Once this group has said this final document is OK, that we can live with it, then that’s what we would like for the states and the corps to look at, consider and maybe adopt.”

The group has formed a committee comprising one member each from the Apalachicola, Flint, Lower/Middle Chattahoochee and Upper Chattahoochee basins to talk with the concerned parties and try to resolve within two weeks how to deal with future information.

That work could involve a directive “to prepare a document that could be sent to people we send data to, saying, ‘Don’t use this against somebody,’” Turner said.

A Web-based governing board meeting is set for Oct. 17 “with the hope that, by then, we have a solution to this and, at that meeting, (the board) would vote to do the things we had hoped to do today.”

Laura Hartt, water policy director for the Atlanta-based Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said Thursday’s developments were “frustrating and disappointing.”

“We feel like information should be open and readily available,” she said. “Facts are facts. The lack of transparency has been part of the whole problem in this whole tri-state conflict. Shutting everything down just feels wrong.”

Wilton Rooks, a vice president with the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association and a founding member of the ACF Stakeholders, is part of the subbasin committee.

“One of the things we want to find out early is what are the points of discussion,” he said of the committee’s mission. “There’s a lot of information exchange that needs to go on among all the parties. We just need to have a very frank, open discussion with all the parties to map out a path forward.”


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