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Agency ready to mediate water wars
Wilton Rooks

Could stakeholders along the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin come together and solve the 18-year-old impasse over water between Georgia, Florida and Alabama?

That’s the question a federal mediator is trying to determine in a series of meetings that began Wednesday in Buford.

Brian Manwaring of the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution met with 50 people, representing such diverse interests as electric utilities, water providers and resort properties, to discuss his preliminary study of the ACF river basin.

Manwaring’s report, while answering some questions, did not address the ability of stakeholders who are litigants in the water war to participate in the proposed mediation.

Also to be determined is the role of the governments of Georgia, Florida and Alabama, who would have a significant say in the implementation of an agreements reached by stakeholders.

Manwaring said he was encouraged by those indicating they would like to see the process move forward.

"About half the hands went up and that’s a pretty good sign," he said.

Another issue to be determined is how to pay for the resolution process. Manwaring said a multiday meeting involving stakeholders from throughout the basin could come with a price tag of $10,000 to $15,000, which would include payment for third-party facilitators with no ties to the basin.

The preliminary report outlined Wednesday showed stakeholders along the basin who only have knowledge of the basin’s impact on their particular region.

"There is no common scientific understanding of the system," Manwaring said.

Pat Stevens of the Atlanta Regional Commission said better relations among the various parties would be beneficial.

"One of the problems in this basin-wide controversy for the last 20 years is that you have stakeholders upstream, midstream and downstream that have no idea what the issues are for their counterparts," Stevens said.

Wilton Rooks, an officer of the Lake Lanier Association and of the newly formed 1071 Coalition, was a part of the group that first contacted the Tucson, Ariz-based institute.

"This is the only way issues are going to be resolved," Rooks said. "States are not going to do it. Courts are not going to do it. As soon as somebody loses in court they’re going to appeal it. This is a way for stakeholders to have influence over the entire process."

The water feud between Georgia, Florida and Alabama began in 1990 and has been through various forms of mediation, primarily between representatives of the governors of the three states.

Talks that began a year ago in Washington collapsed in March when the three states ended discussions that had been started by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

Any talks involving federal officials in Washington are unlikely as the Bush administration draws to a close. The change in the presidency, regardless of the outcome, will likely bring a completely new cabinet and other appointments, including the secretary of the Army, who is in charge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Also scheduled for the first of the year are hearings on the seven pending lawsuits over the ACF and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basin, which is also involved in legal wrangling between Georgia and Alabama. The suits have all been moved to U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Fla., where they will be heard by a senior federal judge from Minnesota.

Additional meetings on the proposed stakeholder mediation effort are scheduled today in Albany and Eufaula, Ala. A fourth meeting is set for Friday in Blountstown, Fla.

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