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Cagle, Richardson want more reservoirs
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Chestatee running back Jo Jo Sweet talks about his team's win.

ATLANTA — President Bush dispatched his Interior secretary and other top officials Thursday to meet with the governors of Alabama and Georgia as the region descended deeper into a drought.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne is scheduled to visit both states today, giving the governors an opportunity to make their case for federal relief. The two states, along with Florida, are mired in a decades-long water fight over federal reservoirs, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the middle.

At the Georgia Capitol, legislative leaders unveiled their plan to help the state stave off future drought. The plan, called the Reservoir Development and Drought Relief Act, does not specify how much state funding would go toward building the lakes, or how many reservoirs would be built.

But it would free up a "significant" amount of state funding to build at least four reservoirs around the state, expand existing ones and speed up the construction process for new lakes, House Speaker Glenn Richardson said.

"We think it’s time to jump-start the building of reservoirs in Georgia," said Richardson, who introduced the proposal with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the state Senate leader.

Added Cagle: "If we can capture more of the rainfall and store it, we can sustain our water use for the future."

A legislative effort to build state-funded reservoirs in Georgia failed in 2002 when a plan to build a regional lake in west Georgia was scuttled after the proposal’s Democratic backers were voted out of office.

But Cagle and Richardson, both Republicans, said it will be a top priority when the state’s legislative session begins in January.

"We are going to provide the full energy of the state behind this," said Richardson. "Frankly, we should have been doing this before now."

The epic drought gripping the Southeast — which government forecasters reported could soon get worse — has intensified the jockeying among the states.

On Thursday, the governors of Florida and Alabama insisted that their downstream states must get their fair share of water.

Georgia has laid the blame on the corps, which regulates the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. Georgia has filed a motion seeking to order the corps to reduce the discharge of water from Buford Dam on Lake Lanier.

Also on Thursday, the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce added its voice to a chorus of business groups calling on the corps to respond to Georgia’s request.

The chamber’s board of directors unanimously passed a resolution, which will be sent to the corps.

Meanwhile, the leader’s of Georgia’s legislature unveiled plans to build a network of new state reservoirs to protect the state against future drought.

Almost a third of the Southeast is covered by an "exceptional" drought — the worst drought category. The Atlanta area, with a population of 5 million, is in the middle of the affected region.

Georgia has responded by banning virtually all outdoor watering and ordering public utilities to cut water use by 10 percent in the northern half of the state. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue on Wednesday also ordered state agencies to reduce their water consumption by 10 to 15 percent, banned the washing of state vehicles and restricted prison inmates to one quick shower a day.

With a dry winter in the forecast and less than 80 days of stored water left in Lake Lanier, the North Georgia reservoir that supplies water to about 3 million residents, Perdue has warned more restrictions could be on the way.

Perdue, who in January proposed bringing large fishing tournaments as an economic boost to the state, suffered a setback on that idea Thursday.

Craig Lamb, general manager of the Professional Anglers Association, said his organization would not hold a planned bass fishing tournament on Lanier, citing the dangerously low lake levels.

"What’s the bigger issue for the Department of Natural Resources?" Lamb said. "Is it to strive to get a bass tournament to Lake Lanier or is to recognize the fact that there is a water shortage in the lake and natural resources are in peril."

Lamb said the association would revisit the idea of a tournament on Lanier when conditions improve.

Caught in the middle of the water fight is the corps, which says it is complying with federal guidelines by sending millions of gallons of water from Georgia downstream to Florida and Alabama to supply power plants and protect federally threatened mussel species.

Georgia last week sued the corps, demanding it send less water downstream. The request brought sharp responses from the governors of Alabama and Florida.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley called Thursday for a truce to the tri-state water dispute, which had already dragged on for years before the drought intensified it. He also said he could meet in Washington next week with Perdue and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.

At a news conference outside the gate to the Farley Nuclear Power Plant near the Georgia line in southeast Alabama, Riley said the plant could be forced to cut power production if the current flow of water on the Chattahoochee River is reduced.

Crist, meanwhile, wrote a letter this week to President Bush saying his state is "unwilling to allow the unrealistic demands of one region to further compromise the downstream communities." His letter echoed a similar one that Riley sent earlier to the president.

He said allowing Georgia to fight drought by slowing water flow into Florida would imperil commercial fishing along the Florida Panhandle, and contended the three states need to work together on more research into alternative water sources.

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