CUMMING - Gov. Sonny Perdue on Saturday declared a state of emergency in the northern third of Georgia and along the basins of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers to the Florida border. The declaration covers 85 of the state's 159 counties.
Perdue, in turn, asked President Bush to declare the same area a federal disaster area and to take direct actions relative to wildlife regulations and the operating plan for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.
"Drought is a natural disaster and we are experiencing the worst drought in North Georgia's history," Perdue said at a news conference at Mary Alice Park on Lake Lanier at Cumming. "On top of that, we're mired in a frustrating man-made disaster of federal bureaucracy."
Perdue called the actions of both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service "irresponsible" and "dangerous."
He promised that the state would hold federal officials accountable.
"They need to understand that the harm that could come to Georgia will be upon their hands," Perdue said.
State officials and members of the Georgia congressional delegation have blamed the corps for not seeking a modification of the interim operating agreement for the river basin. They contend that the discharges from Buford Dam and other reservoirs on the Chattahoochee far exceed what is necessary.
The corps has said the water flow is needed to protect two species of mussels and a rare type of sturgeon in the Apalachicola River in Florida.
"The corps is sending 3.2 billion gallons of water downstream out of Georgia reservoirs every day," Perdue said. "That's enough to fill three and a half Olympic-size swimming pools every minute."
The governor accused the feds of "fiddling while Rome burns."
After making the state disaster declaration, Perdue sent a letter to Bush through Phillip May, regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Atlanta.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said Perdue's request will be reviewed.
"In the meantime, we have already begun drafting interim rules to use procedures and flexibility to address the endangered species requirements and the Army Corps has started the process of revising the operations manual for the river basin," Perino said.
The corps announced on Thursday it would begin revising the operations manual for the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basin, which is also experiencing a severe drought and is included in Perdue's disaster declaration. However, the agency has repeatedly rejected requests by Georgia lawmakers to begin work on revising the operations plan for the Chattahoochee.
On Friday, the state of Georgia asked a federal judge to force the Army Corps of Engineers to curb the amount of water it drains from Georgia reservoirs into streams in Alabama and Florida. Georgia's environmental protection director is drafting proposals for more water restrictions.
The action was filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida and will be heard by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson of Minnesota. Magnuson, who has experience in legal water disputes, was named to hear the case between Georgia, Florida and Alabama.
Perdue said Magnuson had a death in the family and it is not known when he might rule on the state's request.
Perdue was joined at the news conference on Saturday by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and U.S. Reps. Nathan Deal and John Linder of Georgia, as well as a number of state lawmakers, including state Sens. Lee Hawkins of Gainesville, Jack Murphy of Cumming and Eugene "Chip" Pearson of Dawsonville.
"We've learned from this what a blunt weapon the Endangered Species Act has become," said Linder, a Republican from Duluth. "We need to understand this lake was created not for mussels but for people."
Deal said he believed the 15 member congressional delegation would add its support to Perdue's request of Bush. He said, however, that Bush would likely have to weigh Georgia's request for disaster declaration along with the need for water in Alabama and Florida.
"He (Bush) will definitely take into consideration our neighboring state's concerns," said Deal, a Gainesville Republican. "But if you stack those concerns against the concerns of the state of Georgia, they are trivial next to ours."
More than a quarter of the Southeast is covered by an "exceptional" drought - the National Weather Service's worst drought category. The Atlanta area, with a population of 5 million, is smack in the middle of the affected region, which encompasses most of Tennessee, Alabama and the northern half of Georgia, as well as parts of North and South Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division, which has statewide water jurisdiction, enacted an outdoor watering ban in 61 counties, including Hall and surrounding counties, on Sept. 28.
EPD director Carol Couch, who was also at Saturday's news conference, said she plans to brief Perdue on the potential next steps in water restrictions.
"That's subject to his calendar, but I believe it will come early in the week," she said.
During a briefing in Atlanta this week, Couch said the next level of restrictions could potentially impact industrial water users.
Perdue said in his letter to Bush that the drought will cost the state in excess of $10 million. The governor said, however, that the request at this time is for seeking federal money.
"We need the president to cut through the tangle of unnecessary bureaucracy to manage our resources prudently," Perdue said.
Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.