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ACF water study to proceed but remain under wraps
Fla. lawsuit complicates release of river basin data
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A water study involving the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin will resume, but the private group funding the effort may put the clamps on information being released until the study is finished.

The ACF Stakeholders had stopped the work out of concerns that information could create a dicey situation in the wake of a Florida lawsuit against Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court alleging overconsumption of water in the basin, which includes Lake Lanier in the north.

In an Oct. 3 vote, the group’s governing board voted to ask Florida Gov. Rick Scott to “delay any further legal action.”

Then, in a teleconference last week, some 45 governing board members passed a resolution to proceed with the study being conducted by Georgia Tech’s Georgia Water Resources Institute.

And the group also agreed to “set up a provision for amendments to our charter to address some of the concerns about confidentiality and provide for a memo of understanding among” Georgia, Florida and Alabama, Governing Board Chairman Billy Turner said last week.

Those three states have been involved in legal wrangling over water usage in the ACF for about two decades.

A committee comprising one member each from the Apalachicola, Flint, Lower/Middle Chattahoochee and Upper Chattahoochee subbasins will help develop the amendment and memorandum before the ACF Stakeholders’ annual meeting, set for Dec. 11-13 at Lake Blackshear in Cordele.

Normally, for a resolution to pass, there must be consensus among board members.

A charter amendment can pass, however, with a majority of members present and 80 percent approval, said Turner, who is from the Lower/Middle Chattahoochee subbasin.

What follows — including the openness of future meetings — is still unclear.

“There’s certainly a lot of sentiment for keeping our activity open, but it does look like with the Florida lawsuit that we’re going to have some kind of process to get to our final sustainable water management plan that essentially keeps the activities of the (ACF Stakeholders) under some kind of information control,” Turner said.

“There’s concern that the (study) is getting pretty deep into the issues of the operation of the (basin),” he added. “The modeling that we’re doing ... eventually will boil down to the governing board agreeing that this is something they can live with being released.

“It’s our hope that will eventually happen, but it looks like we’re going to be operating on kind of thin ice for about six months.”

Wilton Rooks, a vice president with the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association and a member of the subbasin committee, said 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).”

Rooks, a founding member of ACF Stakeholders, said he believes “there’s always been the belief that the (group’s) effort would culminate in something interesting to say,” but that Florida’s suit has changed the game.

“(The suit) has raised the stakes on making sure that the data is not misused, and one way to deal with that is to make sure there are some sufficient safeguards put around it,” Rooks said.

“This is not an effort to hide things. It’s quite the opposite. It’s an effort to create a structure so we can be more open within our process and not worry about information being used inappropriately.”

The tri-state water wars seemed to tilt in Georgia’s favor in June 2012, when the Supreme Court rejected an appeal of the 11th Circuit ruling by Florida and Alabama.

But tensions flared again in August, as Scott vowed to sue Georgia over increased water consumption, which, he alleges, has limited flows in the Apalachicola Bay, where the seafood industry has been struggling.

Florida filed suit on Oct. 1.

Last week, Gov. Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens announced that Seth P. Waxman of WilmerHale law firm in Washington, D.C., and Christopher Landau and Craig S. Primis of Kirkland & Ellis LLP law firm in Chicago will represent Georgia, along with longtime Georgia water litigators Bruce Brown, Todd Silliman and John Allen.

“It is time for Florida to stop playing politics and start negotiating in good faith,” Deal said in a statement last week.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued an order extending the time for Georgia to file a response to Jan. 31 from Dec. 2.

As for any response the ACF Stakeholders has gotten from Florida on its request to delay legal action, Turner said simply, “No word — not any.”

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