Gov. Nathan Deal traveled to Florida Tuesday for the second round of those quiet meetings he arranged with neighboring states to hash out the water wars dispute.
The meeting with Florida Gov. Rick Scott comes after Deal's secretive meeting in March with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley that touched on Deal's $300 million plan to build a system of state reservoirs in north Georgia.
The meetings have been shrouded in secrecy ever since a court-appointed special master handling a round of lawsuits between Georgia and Florida ordered the dueling states to keep quiet about the ongoing negotiations. Scott's office, though, made public the scheduling change Tuesday afternoon.
"Governor Scott was following up on Governor Deal’s meeting request," said Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz. "Governor Scott will continue to work to protect the families whose livelihoods depend on the Apalachicola Bay.”
Deal's aides declined to comment, although the governor could be seen leaving a local restaurant en route to the airport. He has said he is optimistic that an agreement could be struck with the governors of both states with a bit of “imagination and ingenuity.”
“We’ve made good progress on our side of the line, and both governors have indicated a willingness to re-engage to see if we can finalize it,” Deal said in an interview before the gag order. “It’s better for us to re-engage than have a court try to decide it.”
The fight between the three states involves water flowing from Lake Lanier downstream through Alabama to Florida’s Apalachicola Bay. Georgia’s two neighbors have argued for decades that it has drawn more than its share from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, posing a threat to the ecological system and harming the livelihoods of their residents.
Georgia, which rejects those claims, had won a string of legal battles until the U.S. Supreme Court’s surprise decision in November to hear a last-ditch challenge from Florida seeking to restrict Georgia’s withdrawals. This costly new phase of the litigation led Deal to beef up the state’s legal staff, tap a water czar and set aside millions for new legal fees.
Deal’s willingness to meet with counterparts may reflect a desire to strike a compromise rather than risk a painful court ruling, though similar efforts in past years failed to gain traction. Ralph Lancaster, the special master appointed by the Supreme Court, has encouraged the two sides to keep talking, and delivered a pointed admonition last week at the end of a hearing involving new claims from Florida and Georgia.
“You will not be surprised that as I finish up, I urge you again to try to settle this matter," he told the lawyers. "I assume we have some media in the room, and so we won’t get into a discussion on that; but whatever the result is, whatever the Court does with this case after I make this report, we’re talking a lot of money and a result that I suggest neither one of you may be very happy with. So, again and again, and again, I’m going to urge you to discuss settlement seriously.”
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