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Water law now in hands of conference panel

POSTED: November 24, 2013 11:53 p.m.

U.S. Senate and House of Representatives conferees have started work on the final version of a water authorization bill that states governors, not Congress, should negotiate interstate water disputes.

That’s especially key in the longstanding battle over Lake Lanier water between Georgia, Alabama and Florida, a dispute that’s flared up again recently with a lawsuit filed by Florida against Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Congress has consistently said that the states should settle the dispute,” said Joanna Cloud, executive director of the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association.

“We are glad that Congress did not try to micromanage the issue to achieve a result that would have benefited only one of the parties to the dispute. A solution is needed that will benefit all three states and all of the affected water users” in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which includes Lanier, she said.

The bill, pending in Congress for most of the year, would authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to “construct water projects for mitigating storm and hurricane damage, restoring ecosystems and improving flood management,” according to the Congressional Budget Office.

One of its main benefits to Georgia is that it authorizes deepening the Savannah Harbor, a move that has drawn praise from many state officials.

The bill set aside $662 million for the dredging project, which includes the state and federal portions. To date, Georgia has put aside $231 million for the project.

It is “a critical victory for Georgia as we race to get ready for the much larger ships that will soon sail through an enlarged Panama Canal,” Gov. Nathan Deal said.

“I am grateful to the members of the Georgia delegation in the House and Senate for their role in developing this landmark legislation and fostering Georgia’s economic growth. Georgians have waited on this day for a long time. The hurdles ahead of us are much shorter than those that are now behind us,” Deal said

The bill, which allocates $8.2 billion for dams, harbors, river navigation and other water projects for the coming decade, has drawn huge bipartisan support.

The Senate passed its version, the Water Resources Development Act, in May by an 83-14 vote. The House passed its version, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, in October by a 417-3 vote.

One major sticking point for Georgia was the hands-off stance on water disputes.

“As governor of Georgia, which has negotiated in good faith on interstate water discussions, I strongly endorse the ‘sense of Congress’ on how to handle interstate water disputes,” Deal said. 

“These decisions belong in state capitols, not in Washington and not in court.”

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, has said: “The federal government has no business dictating the terms or putting language into this bill that would affect the water wars.”

Florida filed a legal action Oct. 1 in the U.S. Supreme Court alleging Georgia’s “overconsumption” of water in the ACF harmed Apalachicola Bay, battering its seafood industry.

“The only ‘unmitigated consumption’ going on around here is Florida’s waste of our tax dollars on a frivolous lawsuit,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said at the time.

A private group known as the ACF Stakeholders has been meeting for several years to find water-sharing solutions on its own, but has hit a roadblock as legal wrangling begins anew between the two states.

The group is set to meet Dec. 11-13 at Lake Blackshear in Cordele, where it will decide whether to keep under wraps the details about a water study being conducted by Georgia Tech’s Georgia Water Resources Institute. 

Wilton Rooks, a governing board member and vice president with the Lake Lanier Association, has said that once the governing board has approved a final plan, “we want it to be discovered and distributed. But until we reach that point, it’s just better that (we) have some safeguards around (the process.)”

When asked about the water bill now in Congress, Rooks deferred to Governing Board Chairman Billy Turner, who said, “I’m not tracking the bill, so I really can’t comment.”

Conferees — a bipartisan group that doesn’t include any members from Georgia — held their first meeting Wednesday.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who presided over the meeting, expected heavy work on the bill over the next couple of weeks.

“We don’t want to lose time,” she said.

The bills need to be reconciled before one can be sent to President Barack Obama.

“We’re looking forward to seeing a quick and productive conference and having (the act), and the good things it means for Georgia’s economy, signed into law soon,” Collins said last week.


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