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Tri-state legal battle over water on hold for now
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The legal wrangling over water between Georgia, Florida and Alabama appears to be at a truce for the moment.

But public comments by the state of Florida indicate the state’s displeasure with the reduction in water flow into the Apalachicola River, which could once again push the battle back into the federal court system.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge Paul A. Magnuson of St. Paul, Minn., has been appointed to hear the cases surrounding water on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river systems.

At a hearing on Monday before Magnuson, federal officials said they will decide next month whether to further reduce water released into Florida from Lake Lanier and other reservoirs.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages regional water resources, said it will announce by Dec. 7 whether to cut water flows by another 5 percent.

But Bush administration officials, led by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, want the governors of the three states to reach a long-term agreement on the water they share.

A meeting is scheduled for Dec. 12 in Tallahassee, Fla. between Govs. Sonny Perdue of Georgia, Bob Riley of Alabama and Charlie Crist of Florida. Kempthorne, who is planning to appoint a federal team to aide in the negotiations, has set a goal of February to resolve the dispute, which began in 1990.

Kempthorne has said that the governors need to work out the agreement, not the courts.

But beyond the agreement between the states are other interested parties, including Southern Co., which operates a nuclear and two coal fired power plants on the river system. There are also industries that have direct withdrawal permits from the river.

On top of that is compliance with the Endangered Species Act, which is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There are protected species of mussels and sturgeon in the Apalachicola.

However, the larger interest in Florida is the oyster and other seafood business in Apalachicola Bay. Some observers have accused Florida of using the mussels and sturgeon as a canary in a coal mine. In other words, using the protected species to secure their economic interest.

However, if state officials in Florida and Georgia find themselves at loggerheads over the non-protected interests, a court battle there would begin in the U.S. Supreme Court, something legal observers say would be both costly and potentially detrimental to the effort to resolve the war that has continued for 17 years.