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Will water sharing plan be shared?
ACF Stakeholders fear states could use data from river study in lawsuits
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A private tri-state water group has worked several years to find a water-sharing solution in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin that includes Lake Lanier, something that has eluded Georgia, Alabama and Florida for two decades.

But it appears the ACF Stakeholders has reached a watershed moment of its own, one that could have implications in future water management of the basin.

The group’s governing board, meeting Wednesday and Thursday at Lake Blackshear near Cordele in South Georgia, is set to decide whether a basinwide study should be kept under wraps until work on the crucial document is finished.

Complicating matters for the group is the latest legal salvo in the water wars — Florida has filed suit in the U.S. Supreme Court against Georgia over increased water consumption limiting flows into Apalachicola Bay. 

“We’re trying to be as open as we can, but obviously, there’s the concern that information might be taken from draft documents that haven’t been approved by us,” Governing Board Chairman Billy Turner said last week.

“We’re actively working to see if the states will sign a memorandum of understanding that says they won’t use our information in lawsuits against each other.”

Turner, who is from the Lower/Middle Chattahoochee subbasin, added, “We’ve had several lawyers representing different interests, trying to craft some changes to our governing documents so that we can go forward.

“I think that (agreement among members) is going to happen, but I wouldn’t bet everything I own on it.”

The ACF Stakeholders was officially formed in 2009, a year after a handful of people — including Wilton Rooks of the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association — began “investigating strategies and making action plans for sharing” water in the basin, according to the group’s website.

The group formed with help from the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution based in Tucson, Ariz. Membership now includes government officials, environmental advocates and business and industry leaders.

Turner has said he hopes the data-driven study eventually will produce water-sharing recommendations that ACF Stakeholders could present to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the three states.

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

In the water wars, Florida and Alabama appeared to gain the upper hand in July 2009. That’s when U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson 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.

Tensions flared again in August when Florida Gov. Rick Scott threatened to sue Georgia, around the time the federal government declared a fishery disaster for those who harvest oysters out of the Gulf of Mexico. Florida filed suit Oct. 1.

Later, Gov. Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens announced Georgia’s legal team in the battle, with Deal saying, “It is time for Florida to stop playing politics and start negotiating in good faith.”

The conflict triggered a reaction from the ACF Stakeholders. The group stopped work on the study being conducted by Georgia Tech’s Georgia Water Resources Institute. And the 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 clamp down on information being released until the study is finished.

At this week’s meeting, the governing board will hash out “full changes to our operating procedures and our charter with regard to how we’re going to handle information,” Turner said.

Normally, for a resolution to pass, there must be consensus among board members. A charter amendment can pass, however, with a majority of members present and 80 percent approval, Turner has said.

Last week, several ACF Stakeholders members either declined to comment, deferred to Turner, or both, on current events involving the group.

Rooks, who couldn’t be reached for comment, said in an earlier interview that he believes “there’s always been the belief that the (group’s) effort would culminate in something interesting to say,” but that the latest legal action has changed the game.

“This is not an effort to hide things,” said Rooks. “It’s quite the opposite. It’s an effort to create a structure so we can be more open within our process and not worry about information being used inappropriately.”

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