When he retired in 2006, Jerry Barnes thought of taking it easy and doing the things he enjoyed, like doting on his new grandson and being a passionate fan of Virginia Tech football.
One year and three days after he left his high-level post at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Army came calling again and Barnes said "yes."
Army Secretary Pete Geren selected Barnes to oversee the rewriting of the operation manuals for both the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river systems.
The current ACF manual, a 1989 draft that was later rejected, is the only unofficial guide for operating the river system. It is an 85-page booklet with 20 pages of addendum and support data.
But it is not the sole directive for the system operations.
"It’s a combination of the 50-year-old manuals, the 1989 draft, and practical and personal experience of the staff," Barnes said.Technically, the only manual that is recognized is one that was written at the time Lake Lanier completed in 1957. That manual was written before some of the projects, including Lake Walter F. George, were built. It also uses population data at the time when Georgia had 3.9 million residents, compared with the current 9.3 million. Atlanta’s population was nearing 1 million, compared with 4 million today.
"The conditions of flood control alone, is nowhere near what it is today,’ Barnes said. "That issue alone should frame an understanding of why they need to be updated. Conditions are different, development is different and the rate of runoff is different."
He said that some of the men and women operating the system have been doing so for 25 years or more and have passed along generational knowledge of the system that is not contained in a bound volume. "You’ve got people who have been sitting at the computers every day trying to make adjustments," he said. "The time has long passed that there needs to be a process of hearing everybody’s views, gather data and update the manuals," he said.
The process is expected to take 2« to three years and will include public hearings.
"I’m expecting we will have six or eight hearings during the process, all publicly held and announced," Barnes said. "We will have an explanation of what the manuals are and receive official comments."
Barnes believes that once the manuals are updated, they will need revising again in 10 to 15 years.
But the process of the updating the manual is a politically sensitive process that involves three states with differing interests from the river systems. U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., included language in the current federal budget that prohibits implementation of new manuals this year. While there is no chance that will happen, the language is an indication of how sensitive the issue is on Capitol Hill.
"It’s not easy and I don’t pretend that I’m able to resolve all of the concerns," Barnes said. "My guess is that we can come to a law-complying, environmentally satisfying solution that will make everybody happy and not happy," he said. "Unless it is stopped by some injunctive or legal action, it can be a platform for going forward in the future."
The manual, Barnes contends, will tend to codify the operation of the water projects and get them away from a series of interim and temporary directives.
Barnes has already met with Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia and Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama. He has a meeting scheduled with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. "The corps doesn’t own this water. The folks of these three states own this water. It would be improper of me to assume that I’m able to make those decisions. That’s a sovereign responsibility."
He believes there is a desire from the states to resolve the 18-year-old dispute that is spread out in seven lawsuits in four different courts. "There’s a lot of good folks who have worked on this that haven’t been able to get a resolution," he said. "The manuals present an opportunity, at the very least, a platform from which future agreements might occur."
He said the Army remains willing to facilitate new negotiation meetings if the states are interested.
Last October, the lingering water dispute was exacerbated by the drought and Perdue asked the White House to declare the river system a disaster area.
That brought harsh responses from Alabama and Florida. The three governors were summoned to Washington for a meeting with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who brokered a truce involving the corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. An interim operating plan was implemented in November and continued in effect until June 1.
Kempthorne also engaged the states in talks aimed at resolving the water war. Those talks continued through early March when the secretary announced that the states could not reach agreement and the federal mediation ended.
During that negotiation period, a federal appeals court in Washington ruled against Georgia in a case over storage of drinking water in Lake Lanier, a major setback for Georgia’s water plan.
A visiting federal judge from Minnesota has been appointed to hear the remaining federal cases in Jacksonville, Fla.