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Our Views: Clocks are ticking in water wars
With Lanier now full and water plentiful, court deadline has fallen off political radar
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For a few years, you couldn't pick up a newspaper or turn on a local TV newscast without hearing about Georgia's water concerns.

A two-year drought dropped Lake Lanier to its lowest level ever in December 2007, and other water sources showed similar stress. Lanier businesses suffered and lakefront property owners saw their assets drop in value. Lawns turned brown and cars went unwashed as Georgia residents were forced to take on drastic conservation measures to maintain our personal and commercial water needs.

Then in 2009, just as the lake began to rise back toward full pool, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that Georgia could no longer count on Lanier as an abundant water supply, and that a deal between our state, Florida and Alabama, subject to congressional approval, would be needed by 2012 to keep it flowing. The alternative: A return to mid-1970s water use for metro Atlanta and North Georgia communities.

In the year plus since that ruling, the rains returned, the lake rose to full pool and most Georgians seem to have forgotten about the problem.

But it's still there. Magnuson's decree is now less than two years away from taking effect, and the states are no closer to reaching an agreement on how to share water from the Chattahoochee River system than they were two decades ago when the whole dispute started.

And now there are multiple clocks ticking toward a day when our taps may not produce enough water to meet our needs.

The first is, of course, Magnuson's decision that so far has stood up to court challenges. Georgia is continuing to pursue legal relief from his ruling, but that is problematic. The judge has issued a few other rulings in our state's favor concerning water releases, but those don't address the big- picture decision that awaits.

Georgia had hoped to get a boost from the rewritten water-use manuals the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were in the process of updating. That is, until we learned that water supply would not be included among Lanier's stated purposes, the corps bowing to the judge's ruling instead.

The other clock ticking is on the terms of the three governors involved in the tri-state dispute: Georgia's Sonny Perdue, Alabama's Bob Riley and Florida's Charlie Crist. All are headed out of office at year's end; their motivation for reaching a deal before the clear out is questionable.

Certainly Perdue would like to do so to cap his legacy, but he can't negotiate with himself. Thus far, Florida and Alabama seem content to let the clock run out and the court decide how much water we can use, trusting it will leave more for their power plants, agricultural needs and Gulf shellfish. Riley and Crist haven't rushed to the bargaining table, and who can blame them? It is in their states' interests to let Magnuson's ruling stand.

The race for governor in Georgia between Republican Nathan Deal, Democrat Roy Barnes and Libertarian John Monds has touched on the water issue, though not in great detail. The candidates say they will seek to negotiate aggressively with their counterparts to reach a deal.

But as polls show water ranking only as a mild concern with most Georgia voters, it certainly isn't a top issue. While Northeast Georgians and metro Atlanta may care, folks in Macon, Savannah, Augusta and elsewhere have plenty of water flowing from their sources.

And if water ranks as only a mild concern here, it still tops what's going on in Alabama and Florida. Those states' campaigns are focused on the economy, jobs, transportation and other issues; water doesn't come up at all. Their new governors will come into office with no clear policy on how they will deal with Georgia's new leader.

What's more, Perdue, Crist and Riley at least had the advantage of being from the same party, all Republicans. There's no guarantee the three new governors will share the same party banner, which likely would add partisanship to the many obstacles faced in finding a solution.

Perdue's office believes a recent ruling by Magnuson that limits water releases from dams on the river system may play in Georgia's favor. Florida has appealed the decision, seeking more fresh water for its endangered species in Apalachicola Bay, one species of sturgeon and two types of mussels. The hope is that Florida's new governor might be more willing to negotiate if the courts don't rule in its favor.

Maybe. But there are too many variables to know for sure if any progress can be made before or after the current three men leave office.

And there is one more clock ticking as well: The one that will bring the next drought. So far, 2010 has brought a hot, dry summer and rainfall slightly below average, but we're not in a drought yet. La Niña currents in the Pacific that led to the drought of 2007-08 appear to be forming, and forecasters are looking for a warm, dry winter, a sharp contrast from last year.

Our climate cycles have taken us from drought to normal rainfall every few years, so it's just a matter of time before the next one strikes. When it does, lake levels are likely to drop again and Georgians will again seek relief from Congress, the courts or the skies.

Ideally, we shouldn't wait that long. Progress toward a water deal needs to continue, including whatever incentives can bring Alabama and Florida to the table. Without an agreement to forestall it, no one knows exactly what will happen on the day Magnuson's ruling takes effect.

Meanwhile, three governor's races drone on with hardly a drop of water mentioned, the fall skies remain clear, Lake Lanier's water levels inch slowly downward and the ticking toward that fateful day is getting ever louder.

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