Another costly legal fight looms for Georgia over water

Palm Beach Post writer John Kennedy contributed to this story.

Gov. Nathan Deal on Wednesday warned Florida that Georgia is ready for a new fight over regional water rights and vowed the state “will not roll over.”

This week’s announcement from Florida Gov. Rick Scott that he plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to limit Georgia’s water use short-circuited negotiations among the governors of Alabama, Florida and Georgia and opened up a new, more hostile chapter in the multi-decade “water wars.”

Deal, who said he was blindsided by Scott’s statement, urged the states to resume talks but seemed resigned to the fact that Georgia will confront another taxing legal fight that could take years to resolve.

"We're talking about water that falls on Georgia's soil and flows through the state of Georgia. There's a reason for us to be protective. We will not roll over. If Florida wants to fight, we'll fight," Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday. "We think we have plenty of ammunition and that we have shown good faith on our side."

Scott said he was forced to turn to the courts because an amicable resolution is not in sight as Florida’s oyster industry in the Apalachicola Bay deteriorates. He wants more freshwater from the river systems fed by Lake Lanier to reach the Apalachicola region, which could limit Atlanta’s water withdrawals from the lake.

The water wars have “had their peaks and valleys in terms of governors from one state or the other taking shots at their neighbor,” said Gil Rogers, of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has been pushing for a negotiated resolution with governments, industries, green groups and other interests along the Chattahoochee river basin.

“There also have been periods where people have tried to sit down and go through things. We haven’t gotten there yet.”

Many Georgia officials were optimistic that last year’s Supreme Court decision to let stand a ruling that allowed metro Atlanta to tap Lake Lanier for drinking water would end the dispute. The court’s move cleared the way for the Army Corps of Engineers to rewrite outdated water use guidelines, a process that could take until 2015.

Even the remote possibility that the Supreme Court could side against Atlanta and restrict access to Lanier, Atlanta’s main water source, could have a ripple effect across Georgia’s business communities. Some leaders moved quickly to cast Florida’s effort as a long-shot bid rooted in jealousy of its northern neighbor.

“This is political rather than practical. It’s my opinion that they’re trying to deny Georgia business opportunities,” said Rusty Paul, the former head of the Georgia Republican Party who is now running for Sandy Springs mayor. “They might as well be open about it: They’re trying to slow the Georgia economic juggernaut. Their agenda is more about winning the economic development war than trying to get more water for oysters.”

But Scott and other Florida officials say a renewed legal fight is the only remaining option to revive the state's decimated oyster industry, which they often say was caused by a thirsty Georgia. Scott, however, has also acknowledged natural factors and overfishing have played a role.

Florida’s GOP leaders gave him uniform support, blaming Georgia’s “intransigence” for forcing this latest dispute.

“This issue is not only about preserving one of Florida’s great ecosystems,” Florida’s House Speaker Will Weatherford said. “It’s also about saving an important part of our economy.”

A lawsuit would be a political win-win for Scott, said Mac Stipanovich, a veteran Florida Republican operative. The panhandle is a big part of Scott’s base and the rest of the state does not mind picking a fight with Georgia.

“The more the governor of Georgia is (complaining) about it, it helps Scott,” Stipanovich said. “That’s kind of a ‘throw me in the brier patch’ thing. Bring it on, Gov. Deal.”

Both governors are seeking re-election next year, though Scott’s position is much more precarious. Early polls have him trailing all potential Democratic challengers, but his approval ratings have improved in recent months along with the economy.

Alabama’s next move also will be closely scrutinized. For now, Gov. Robert Bentley, also a Republican, is staying out of it.

“Alabama will consider all available options to protect our right to a fair share of the water in the Chattahoochee River, but I cannot comment on any future actions that Alabama may take,” said Bentley spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis. “We will continue to ensure that our citizens get our fair share of the water.”

Deal struggled to mask his frustration about the collapse of talks between the states. He said negotiations between Georgia and Florida abruptly broke off about a year ago after Georgia presented a new framework for sharing water to Florida and heard only silence in return. He wouldn’t say what the proposal included, but hinted it involved more conservation efforts.

The governor said he was concerned that Scott’s saber-rattling was an effort to score political points because “we’re approaching election season.” He said he still has hope, however dim, that the governors can hash out the dispute despite more than two decades of evidence to the contrary.

“The court has spoken and we think the governors should be able to resolve this,” he said.

Georgia Democrats signaled Wednesday they approved of Deal’s tough-talk approach.

“Water is the present and water is the future for Georgia, and we are ready to fight,” said state Rep. Al Williams, a Democrat whose southeast Georgia district sits near the Florida state line. “I think we’ll stick together with the governor on this issue. It’s a rare event, so you ought to take a picture of this one.”

Some analysts worried the move could derail work on other challenges facing the region. Howard Franklin, the director of the Georgia Forward policy group, said he hoped the new legal fight wouldn’t “poison the well for working together to fight childhood obesity, improve educational outcomes or hasten the economic recovery.”

But Deal didn’t seem overly optimistic about salvaging a water deal.

“I was looking forward to continuing those discussions but I can only talk from our side,” he said. “I can’t talk for the other side.”

John Kennedy of the Palm Beach Post contributed to this article.