Congressional leaders from Florida, Georgia and Alabama are scheduled to meet today to discuss what role they will play in a conflict over water rights between the three states.
U.S. Reps. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville, and John Lewis, D-Atlanta, sent a letter to the members of the Alabama and Florida delegations Friday, inviting the lawmakers to meet at the U.S. Capitol to discuss the litigious issue.
A federal judge in July ruled that Georgia is not authorized to take water from Lake Lanier for drinking purposes. Under U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson’s ruling, Georgia has three years to work out a water-sharing arrangement with Florida and Alabama or risk losing nearly all of the state’s right to Lake Lanier’s water.
“We feel as though an opportunity for the three delegations to openly express their opinions and positions on this issue would be beneficial to not only the members of Congress and the people we represent, but to our governors and senators by showing our willingness to engage in dialogue with each other,” the letter read.
A representative from Deal’s office could not say Tuesday how many of Florida’s 25 House members and Alabama’s seven House members have responded to the letter, but lake advocates and state and local government officials praised the effort.
State Sen. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, was one of them. Hawkins, who is seeking Deal’s congressional seat in 2010, said congressional and state leaders must do everything they can to resolve the dispute between the three states. The issue should especially be addressed on the congressional level, because Magnuson’s ruling affects other states too, Hawkins said.
“I think we need to move in every direction,” Hawkins said. “...Everything that we can do we ought to do; we leave no stone unturned, because this (three-year) period is going to be a blink. It’ll go by so fast by the time people get together, have meetings, make decisions, write it up — we’ve just got to get it done. There’s no reason for us to sit around.”
Alex Laidlaw, president of the 1071 Coalition and vice president of WestTrec Marinas, said he is hopeful that today’s meeting will kick off meaningful negotiations between the three states.
Since Congress will be responsible for the ultimate penning of legislation changing Lake Lanier’s authorization, Laidlaw said it would make sense for the process to start with congressional leaders. Laidlaw said he thought the negotiations would be a better approach than any further litigation.
“It seems to me that that’s probably a good thing — a good way to start —maybe the congressmen, maybe since they’ve got to work together everyday, maybe there’s less reason to be partisan about it,” Laidlaw said.
The thought of congressional leaders coming together on the issue was also encouraging to Kelly Randall, director of Gainesville’s Public Utilities Department. The Gainesville department pulls approximately 18 million gallons of water each day from Lake Lanier, and under Magnuson’s ruling, the utility stands to lose more than half of that in three years.
“Perhaps they can make progress where others haven’t been able to,” Randall said. “I guess all we can do at this point is to wait and see where their discussions will lead us.”