Water wars chief shields Florida-Georgia settlement talks from a 'relentless and ruthless media'

The quiet efforts underway between Georgia and Florida to hash out a settlement over water rights are about to get more secretive.

The attorney overseeing the latest round of litigation between the two states issued an order Monday that prevents the public from accessing records involving ongoing settlement negotiations between the two states.

Ralph Lancaster's order comes days after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that Gov. Nathan Deal had arranged hush-hush meetings with his counterparts in Alabama and Florida to potentially hash out the decades-old water wars dispute.

In a transcript of a conference call with Florida and Georgia attorneys, Lancaster made clear his desire to keep the talks confidential.

"This is a personal opinion, but I think the media is relentless and ruthless," said Lancaster, a veteran Maine litigator tapped by the U.S. Supreme Court to oversee the case. "And so they will do everything they can to publish everything that they can find out."

Records show that Deal met with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley in March to discuss a potential settlement, and that he sought a similar meeting with Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

Deal said last week that he discussed with Bentley his plan to build a system of state reservoirs to beef up the state’s water storage supply, and sounded optimistic that an agreement could be struck with Florida 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. "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. Lancaster encouraged the two sides to keep talking, and said that he's hopeful a compromise could be struck.

"I'm a little more encouraged after having read what I read about the Iran negotiations," Lancaster said, "because apparently nothing is beyond settlement."

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.