In a rare show of bipartisan unity, Georgia’s entire congressional delegation fired the latest salvo in the bureaucratic war over water in the drought-parched states of Georgia, Florida and Alabama.
With the filing of identical bills in the U.S. House and Senate, lawmakers are seeking a temporary exemption to the federal Endangered Species Act. Currently, billions of gallons of water are being discharged from Georgia’s lakes and rivers to protect mussels and sturgeon in the Apalachicola River on the Florida panhandle.
U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville, said human life takes priority over aquatic life.
"The Endangered Species Act should not have priority over human needs, when we’re in drought conditions," Deal said in an interview with The Times. "The bill gives a governor of a state or the secretary of the Army the ability to suspend the provisions of the act during the term of the drought conditions."
While Deal would not speculate about its future, the legislation faces an uphill challenge with the likelihood of negative reaction from members of the Alabama and Florida delegations, as well as from environmental groups opposed to any relaxation of federal law.
"I think it gives us a basis for talking with members of other delegations about the seriousness of the matter, because the status quo is not acceptable and hinges largely on the Endangered Species Act provisions guaranteeing minimum downstream flows," Deal said.
The congressman said the downstream flows from Lanier far exceed the natural flows from Buford Dam.
"It’s now more than two and a half times what is required for the Endangered Species Act," he said.
U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. could not recall a time when Georgia’s lawmakers in Washington were united on a single issue.
"That shows you the seriousness of the situation," Chambliss said. "We all understand that the state is fixing to run out of water. Maybe not down South, but if Atlanta runs out that presents a crisis for the whole state."
Deal, Chambliss, other lawmakers and state officials place the blame for the situation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates Lanier and the river systems in Georgia.
"The corps doesn’t seem to be willing to move and doesn’t seem to understand how serious the crisis is," Chambliss said. "We thought we needed to take a strong shot to be able to get their attention. We hope they’ll move on it and if they don’t we’ll move ahead and try to get something done legislatively."
In the past, the corps has declined to comment about water level issues, citing pending litigation on water management practices for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle returned home to Gainesville on Tuesday for an interview that appeared on ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson.
Afterward, Cagle said the state is awaiting a reply to a letter sent to the corps last week by Carol Couch, director of the state Environmental Protection Division.
In her letter, Couch asked the agency to make adjustments to the interim operating plan for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. The letter suggests that the most dismal modeling shows Lake Lanier dropping to a level of 1,039 feet above mean sea level by the end of the year and down to 1,035 by the end of January.
Couch asks for modifications of the reservoir operating rules on the river system and sought a reply by the close of business today.
"The idea that the corps could justify mussels over drinking water just doesn’t make sense," Cagle said. "We’re going to make our case and we’re going to take it as far as we need to and insure that."
Without elaborating, Cagle said if the state does not get a satisfactory answer today, it will pursue other routes of relief. "The state is ready to take every option at our disposal," he said, adding in mock frustration, "and I’m about ready to bring out the National Guard if that’s required to insure our water is protected."