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Water group to keep study secret until final plan OKd
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Not wanting to get caught in the middle of legal wrangling between Georgia and Florida, a private tri-state water group has decided to clamp down on information in an ongoing water-sharing study.

“Our data was starting to become valuable,” said James N. McClatchey, chairman of the ACF Stakeholders’ governing board.

The group, which consists of people with a vested interest in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin, voted last week in a meeting at Lake Blackshear near Cordele “to adopt (certain) procedures to keep our information confidential until we release it as part of an overall plan,” said McClatchey, who represents the Upper Chattahoochee subbasin.

“I think there was a strong, maybe almost unshakable, commitment that we were going to get to a sustainable water management plan, and that’s still the objective, I think, of the whole group.”

The group had been concerned about information leaks since Florida filed suit Oct. 1 against Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court, alleging increased water consumption had limited flows into Apalachicola Bay and wrecked the oyster industry.

The lawsuit draws out what has been a 20-year water-sharing conflict between Georgia, Alabama and Florida, often referred to as “water wars.” Much of the debate has focused on Lake Lanier, which serves as the main drinking water source for metro Atlanta.

Florida and Alabama appeared to gain the upper hand in July 2009, when U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson issued a strict ruling against Georgia.

He imposed a three-year deadline for Georgia to either find another source of water, have Congress reauthorize Lake Lanier as a specially designated source of drinking water or successfully negotiate a water-sharing agreement with Florida and Alabama.

Georgia successfully appealed the decision in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, then gained further leverage in June 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal of the 11th Circuit ruling by Florida and Alabama.

The ACF Stakeholders was officially formed in 2009, “recognizing that litigation and politics have been unable to resolve the issues,” according to the group’s website.

The group soon embarked on the water study, conducted by Georgia Tech’s Georgia Water Resources Institute, and has raised more than $1.5 million to help pay for costs, McClatchey said.

When Florida filed its suit, ACF Stakeholders stopped work on the study, and its governing board voted Oct. 3 to ask Florida to “delay any further legal action.”

Later, the group decided to proceed with the study but look at ways to stop information from being released until the study is finished. They took that formal action last week.

Former Governing Board Chairman Billy Turner has said he hopes the data-driven study eventually will produce water-sharing recommendations ACF Stakeholders could present to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which governs Lake Lanier, and the three states.

And that’s still the hope, McClatchey said.

“My optimistic time frame is that we may have something by the summer,” he said. “I think that what we have found is when we’re dealing with data and science, we usually move pretty quickly. It’s when we’re discussing process and so on that we move slower.

“In a sense, we’re all sort of neophytes at this, and we want to be careful that we don’t overlook something or do something stupid.”

The corps, meanwhile, is working on a water control manual update for the basin. The manual is set to be implemented in 2015.