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Tri-state water battle headed to courts
Negotiations fail to reach deal in 18-year dispute
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The 18-year battle between Georgia, Florida and Alabama over water appears headed back to federal court.

Negotiations between the states, mediated by the Bush administration, have broken down, according to a letter sent Friday night to the governors of the three states.

The letter was sent by U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Jim Connaughton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality.

"We understand, and it is unfortunate, that in parallel to our decision making on interim and revised operations, you will all be working through the federal courts," the letter stated. "It is our hope that developments in the courts will not frustrate further progress in resolving the remaining technical issues we face together."

The dispute centers primarily on water from two Georgia lakes, Lanier and Allatoona. It began in 1990, when Georgia proposed creating an additional reservoir on the Tallapoosa River near the Alabama border.

The talks reached a fever pitch last fall when Georgia and Alabama were mired in the worst drought in a century.

The Bush administration, through Kempthorne and Connaughton, brought the governors to Washington. They reached some interim agreements and secured a pledge for a long-term resolution by Feb. 15.

After the talks failed to produced an agreement by that date, Kempthorne extended the negotiating period for "at least a week." However, Friday's announcement from the Interior Department was the first official word that talks have ended.

There had been no word on progress in the talks after federal officials, the three state negotiators and representatives of Alabama Power and Georgia Power signed confidentiality agreements.

The two federal officials said in their letter that some of the staff members said more progress has been made in the past three months than in the past 18 years. "We have achieved some, but not all, of our objectives," they wrote. "We have gained a better understanding of the system and the interactions of the system, which has assisted us in narrowing a significant number of issues that divide the states."

While not identifying the stumbling blocks in the negotiations, the letter called the issues "quite difficult." Kempthorne and Connaughton regretted that a solution would be directed to the states instead of coming from the states. They said federal agencies will continue work on revising water control plans and manuals, including an interim operating plan to replace the current one that expires June 1.

Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, said the administration is pleased that the feds will continue their work.

"While our preference was to reach agreement with our neighbors, we are encouraged that the federal agencies are expressing interest in looking at the interim operations plan, which is what drained Lake Lanier in the first place," Brantley said. "We are committed to working closely with all parties as the water manuals are updated and the operations of the system are revised. It is our opinion that the federal agencies are better prepared than ever before to make sound decisions that will benefit all three states."

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle echoed those sentiments, saying the state was not giving up. "The best case scenario would have been for the three states to come to an agreement through negotiations alone," Cagle said. "I am encouraged that the discussions we've had will provide real facts and a clear picture to the federal government as they update the water manuals. We will be actively engaged throughout the process and will protect the water needs of our state."

Chris Riley, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville, said the congressman applauded Perdue's effort. "Congressman Deal is disappointed the three governors could not produce an agreement but commends Gov. Perdue for his leadership and steadfast determination not to sacrifice Lake Lanier for downstream special interests," Riley said. Deal's district includes large portions of both river systems.

Kempthorne was seen as a likely broker for a tri-state agreement, having settled a long battle between seven Western states over water in the Colorado River basin.

The likely venue for any further legal action on the primary disagreement will be the U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Fla., and will be heard by Senior U.S. District Court Judge Paul A. Magnuson of St. Paul, Minn., who has been appointed to hear the cases surrounding water on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river systems.

There currently are eight lawsuits pending over water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river systems in four different federal courts.

While the federally mediated talks were under way, Georgia was dealt a severe setback in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. The appeals court threw out an agreement that Georgia reached with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for water rights to Lake Lanier, handing Alabama and Florida a major victory.

The 2003 agreement with the corps would give Georgia about a quarter of Lake Lanier's capacity over the coming decades and was the foundation of Georgia's long-term plans for supplying drinking water to the rapidly growing Atlanta region.

Under the agreement, up to 240,858 acre-feet of Lanier would be set aside for water storage: 175,000 acre-feet for Gwinnett County, 20,675 acre-feet for the city of Gainesville, and 45,183 acre-feet for the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Alabama and Florida challenged the pact, arguing that Georgia doesn't have any legal right to the federal reservoir, which was built in the 1950s initially for hydropower and flood control. The withdrawals would dry up river flows into their states that support smaller municipalities, power plants, commercial fisheries and industrial users such as paper mills.

Also in January, the city of Apalachicola, Fla., filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the current operating plan.

The 97-page suit asks the court to declare the November interim operating plan for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system unlawful. The plan reduced the flow into the Apalachicola to 4,250 cubic feet per second. Prior to the plan, the flow had been 5,000 cubic feet per second.