Gov. Sonny Perdue returned from Washington Thursday with an agreement to slow the flow of water from Lake Lanier and a commitment from his counterparts in Florida and Alabama to work out an agreement on water.
The proposal was announced by Lt. Gen. Robert L. Van Antwerp, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who said his staff would submit a proposal to reduce the flow at the Jim Woodruff Lock and Dam by 800 cubic feet per second.
To take effect, the plan must win approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because the Apalachicola River, which begins at the Woodruff Dam, is the home to species of mussels and sturgeon protected under the Endangered Species Act. The service has said that the review, which normally takes more than four months, will be ready in two weeks.
The deal was brokered by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and other administration officials, including Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Perdue, along with Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama and Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, met at the Interior Department for more than two hours.
That meeting followed an earlier session at the office of U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. Aides described that meeting as tense.
The participants emerged from the meeting to announce the tentative arrangement and that the governors would resume negotiating a settlement to the water war that has gone on for 17 years.
Kempthorne said the current Corps of Engineers operating plan for the river systems in Georgia, Florida and Alabama, is inadequate and must be rewritten.
"The current corps operating plan, in regard to drought, is inadequate," Kempthorne said, calling for a collaborative effort to come up with a new addendum to the operating manuals for the river system.
He said attention needs to be given to both the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river systems.
He said the new plan will be written by governors and then given to the corps.
"This has to come from the states," he said.
Perdue, who has drawn fire from his two neighboring chief executives, was pleased with the potential for reducing the water flow from Buford Dam.
"I’m grateful for the relief," Perdue said.
Perdue has criticized the federal government for continuing what he calls excessive water releases from reservoirs such as Lake Lanier, even as the drought has shrunk it to near record lows.
Under Thursday’s agreement, the corps would reduce flows by about 16 percent in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin that runs along the Alabama-Georgia border into Florida’s Apalachicola Bay.
The participants responded to questions from news organizations gathered at the Interior Department and by teleconference.
Perdue and Riley were asked by The Times if they felt the current situation could be a catalyst for a permanent agreement.
"Failure is not an option this time," Riley said. "We are in the middle of the most severe drought we’ve ever had."
Perdue responded with a message to property owners on Lanier: "I’m hopeful that the ‘for sale’ signs on beach front property on Lanier will soon be gone."
Riley said any final agreement must take into account both basins, and he said after the press conference that the corps had agreed to increase the water flows into Alabama through another Georgia reservoir, Lake Allatoona. Maj. Daren Payne of the corps said later that the agency had agreed to delay until December its normal policy of cutting flows from Allatoona that typically begin in the fall.
Perdue said Georgia had not made any decisions about continuing a lawsuit it filed against the government last month but suggested it might pull back from the litigation so long as the parties continue negotiating in good faith. Kempthorne said the governors had committed to meeting again next month and to finishing a drought water-management plan by mid-February.
Crist has invited Perdue and Riley to come to Tallahassee, Fla., for the next negotiations on Dec. 12.
Both of Georgia’s U.S. senators, who attended the earlier meeting on Thursday, were pleased with the overall outcome of the meetings.
"Georgia received some good news today following many, many months of dialogue, and that dialogue must continue," Sen. Saxby Chambliss said. "We’re in an unprecedented drought. And one thing is certain, we can’t negotiate the weather or how much rainfall we get, but the Corps of Engineers can take the necessary steps to help us in the short-term and prepare for the future."
Sen. Johnny Isakson called the corps action "a step in the right direction."
"These are complex issues and to expect that there will be one simple answer at one meeting is beyond possibility, but we proved today we are all trying to find constructive ways to work this out," Isakson said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.