The flow of water from the Chattahoochee River should be slowing after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reach an agreement that they say will not harm federally protected mussels and sturgeon in the Apalachicola River.
But the top regional official of the corps is cautioning that the reduced flow into Florida would not necessarily result in an immediate impact on the amount of water leaving Lake Lanier.
The corps immediately reduced the flow of water into the Apalachicola from 5,000 cubic feet per second to 4,750 cubic feet per second, which is only a 5 percent reduction. The flows will later be reduced to 4,500 cubic feet per second, which would be a 10 percent reduction.
A news release said additional study was needed to determine the environmental impact of a further reduction to 4,150 cubic feet per second. That would represent a 17 percent reduction from the release rate of 5,000 cubic feet per second.
"We feel like we've got the most flexible system to meet the needs, from the headwaters of Lake Lanier down to Apalachicola Bay," corps Brig. Gen. Joseph Schroedel said.
Schroedel, however, stressed that reduction in flow at Woodruff Dam will not result in immediate change at Lanier. "If the flows out of the Flint (River) or the flows south of Buford remain low, then the balance will be made up out of Lanier," Schroedel said. "There is not a direct, one-to-one correlation between a reduction in flows south of Woodruff and a reduction in flows on Lanier."
Schroedel dispelled any notion of a fixed number of days of remaining water in Lake Lanier.
"That number changes daily," he said. "There is still a lot of water in Lake Lanier."
He said that various scenarios show that there is 450 days of water before the lake would be dry.
A report published prior to the news conference indicated state and federal officials agreed the lake had 79 days of conservation storage left.
Feds will enter tri-state water talks
At the same time, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said that a federal panel would be appointed to assist in the next round of negotiations between the governors of Georgia, Florida and Alabama.
Kempthorne, a former Idaho governor, indicated the commitment from the three chief executives remains intact, despite evidence to the contrary from Florida. State officials there have opposed the reduction of water coming into the state from Georgia.
"They're all neighbors, they're all working together," said Kempthorne. "We'll get through this."
A spokesman for Kempthorne, Shane Wolfe, said the secretary would name the federal representatives in the next few weeks.
"I expect they will come from the federal family, from the agencies involved in the matter," Wolfe said. He could not say if they would be named in time to participate in a planned meeting Dec. 12 in Tallahassee, Fla.
The 78-page Fish and Wildlife report released Friday concludes that the change in plans is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the Gulf sturgeon and fat threeridge, purple bankclimber and Chipola slabshell mussels.
The decision could set off another round of legal challenges by Florida, which argues reducing the flows downstream could endanger the state's fishing economy.
Perdue, Riley pleased with decision
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has criticized the federal government for continuing what he calls excessive water releases from North Georgia reservoirs even as the drought threatens Atlanta's water supplies and shrinks lakes and streams to new lows.
Perdue, who is on a trade mission to Canada, issued a statement expressing his pleasure with the decision. "I am pleased that our federal partners agree that we must slow the releases from Georgia reservoirs to preserve precious water resources during this historic drought," Perdue said. "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision today is important for Georgia because it immediately allows less water to leave our shrinking reservoirs, and it allows for further ramp downs of releases if drought conditions persist."
Florida and Alabama have balked at Georgia's effort to keep more water, arguing its demands were unreasonable and reducing the flows downstream could cripple their economies.
Alabama seems mollified by the corps' decision as well. Gov. Bob Riley said he was "very satisfied and very pleased" with the move.
But it didn't satisfy Florida, which has threatened legal action if the corps didn't continue keeping the current amount from Lanier flowing downstream. Florida environmental commissioner Michael Sole said the decision "further jeopardizes the threatened and endangered species" and "starves the overall health of the fragile ecosystem."
At a three-state water meeting earlier this month in Washington, the corps said it wants to temporarily cut the flow of water to Florida by 16 percent until the drought breaks, but it first needs the approval of Fish and Wildlife.
It made for a temporary truce in a water fight that has pitted Georgia, Alabama and Florida against each other for the better part of two decades. But it didn't last long. Florida last week backed away from the agreement, saying the reductions could cause a "catastrophic collapse of the oyster industry" and "displace the entire economy" in the Florida Panhandle.
"The flow questions in the Apalachicola extend way beyond listed species," said Sam Hamilton, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Flows to protect mussels are not necessarily designed to protect oysters or the brown and white shrimp that come in and out of Apalachicola Bay."
But former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers said that a dispute over water for economic reasons would be a state vs. state dispute. That matter, if taken to court, would originate in the U.S. Supreme Court, which hears disputes between states.
During his tenure as attorney general, Bowers said Georgia was engaged in a lengthy Supreme Court fight over state boundaries with South Carolina. At issue was territory along the Savannah River.
"It was a long, long fight," Bowers said, adding that a battle in the Supreme Court is expensive.
"But in a dispute like this (water) it could be well worth it because you're talking about things that are much more important than legal fees," he said.
The three states have been locked in a legal battle over water rights since the early 1990s, but the fight has intensified in recent weeks as a record drought has descended over much of the region.
Lawsuit argued in federal court
In one of seven active lawsuits in the water wars, attorneys for all three states argued in federal appeals court Friday morning in Washington over a 2003 settlement in which the corps agreed to allow Georgia to use nearly 25 percent of Lanier for drinking water storage.
The agreement, which has not yet been implemented, is a linchpin of Georgia's water plans for the coming decades. Currently, the state gets water from Lanier under smaller, short-term contracts. A rejection of the longer-term agreement would be a major setback for the state. Among the participants in the court of appeals case is the city of Gainesville.
Florida and Alabama have fought the agreement, arguing that Lanier was built to produce hydropower and that under federal law only Congress has authority to significantly alter the functions of federal reservoirs.
The three judges presiding over the case appeared to sympathize with Florida and Alabama during oral arguments, sharply questioning attorneys for Georgia and the corps over claims that the shift is not significant enough to trigger congressional involvement.
"You don't think setting aside a quarter of the water for local drinking supply is an operational change?" Judge Brett Kavanaugh asked.
At one point, an attorney for the corps acknowledged that the agency has never made such a large change without first getting congressional approval.
In an interview with The Times, Bruce Brown, the lead attorney for the state, dispelled the notion that water in Lanier is not for drinking. "That's like saying I-95 is not for trucks," Brown said.
The court is expected to issue a decision in the case in the coming months.
The overall dispute centers on how much water the corps holds back in federal reservoirs near the head of two river basins in North Georgia that flow south into Florida and Alabama.
The fast-growing Atlanta region relies on the lakes for drinking water. But power plants in Florida and Alabama depend on healthy river flows, as do farms, commercial fisheries, industrial users and municipalities.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.