Congressmen urge governors to work on settling tri-state water feud

WASHINGTON -- With the clock ticking toward a court-imposed deadline in the tri-state water wars, members of Congress are growing increasingly frustrated -- and concerned -- that the governors of Georgia, Alabama and Florida aren't working quickly enough toward a settlement in the case.

During a rare meeting behind closed doors in Washington on Wednesday, congressional representatives from all three states agreed to draft a joint letter to the three governors urging them to meet as soon as possible to begin negotiating an agreement.

"Time is now becoming of the essence here, and if the governors don't act, we'll have to go to Plan B -- and we don't know what Plan B is yet," U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, a Macon Democrat, said afterward.

“There's some [frustration] on some people's parts,” added U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, a Gainesville Republican who joined U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat, in inviting their counterparts from Alabama and Florida to Wednesday's meeting.

A federal judge ruled in July that metro Atlanta was not properly authorized to take water from Lake Lanier, even though the lake is a primary source of drinking water for the region. U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that within three years Congress must authorize withdrawals from Lanier and that Georgia, Alabama and Florida must work out a water-sharing agreement -- or else Atlanta's allocation of water from Lanier would revert to 1970s levels.

Yet in an indication of the complexity of the situation -- and perhaps the lack of communication between the governors and members of Congress -- a spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue said there's nothing stopping members of Congress from drafting legislation to authorize withdrawals from Lake Lanier, even if it will be ultimately left up to the governors to decide how much water each state should get.

"There's nothing the governors can do to solve this authorization question," Perdue spokesman Bert Brantleysaid, adding that's solely up to Congress.

"We're not asking [Congress] to solve the problem and then we'll get to it," he said. "The point is, everything needs to move out expeditiously."

Members of Congress from the three states, however, are hesitant to draft any legislation that authorizes withdrawals from Lake Lanier until the three governors work out details.

With the governors of all three states leaving office in January 2011 -- Perdue and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley face term limits and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is running for the U.S. Senate -- the deadline to reach an agreement actually is much shorter than thought, some of the congressmen said at Wednesday’s meeting.

After some hesitation from Crist, representatives of the governors of the three states are in fact planning to meet soon and are negotiating a date and place, Perdue spokesman Brantley said.

"The meeting [between the governors] will happen," he said. "We'll get it scheduled, hopefully sooner than later."

U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, a Florida Democrat who helped draft a previous compact between the three states on water that ultimately failed, insinuated that part of the reason the governors didn't reach some sort of agreement earlier was because Perdue was unwilling to meet with his counterparts before the judge's ruling.

Asked about allegations from others in Congress that Crist is now dragging his feet about meeting, Boyd said that's part of the reason he and others want to write to Crist and the other governors.

"It's our responsibility to make sure the governor gets in the room with them," Boyd said. "And we'll do our best to make that happen."

Some observers say Crist may have been hesitant to meet after Perdue vowed in July that Georgia would "fight to the death" to keep drawing water from Lake Lanier.

“His first take out of the box was enough to set anybody back in their chair and say, ‘You know, this guy is looking like he is going to defy the court order,’ ” said Dan Tonsmeire of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, a river protection group in Florida. “It may just be that Governor Crist is waiting to see if there is some sincere effort to work on a compromise.”

A spokesman for Crist didn’t respond to requests for comment by late Wednesday but said in an e-mail Tuesday that “we are working with the other states to settle on a date that is amenable to all parties.”

Riley issued a statement after the congressmen met Wednesday, saying: “Our side has consistently said that this matter needs to be resolved by the three governors. We’re not trying to drag this out in the courts and we’re not trying to punt the problem to Congress. Alabama has been and remains ready to resume negotiations immediately.”

Despite the status of negotiations, each state is coming to the realization that it will have to give up something to help the whole region deal with water shortages in the future, said U.S. Rep. Bobby Bright, an Alabama Democrat.

"Every party is going to have to look toward some sacrifice," Bright said. "But let's make sure those sacrifices are produced by a fair agreement and one that will be something each state can work with."

Georgia officials have said a negotiated settlement with Alabama and Florida is their “highest priority.” But a state task force has been set up to study conserving, capturing and controlling more water. That could involve building new reservoirs and filling unused quarries.

Experts, however, say it could be prohibitively costly and take too long for Georgia to find enough alternative sources of water to replace what could be lost from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River under Magnuson’s ruling.

If that ruling were allowed to take effect today, the Atlanta region would be left with a deficit of 302 million gallons of water a day, according to a Sept. 30 report by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. In 2035, the gap would reach 497 million gallons a day.

Mark Crisp, an Atlanta-based water expert for the national consulting firm C.H. Guernsey & Co., said Perdue has no choice but to negotiate with Alabama and Florida. Perdue, Crisp said, should “take his hat in hand and take a chili dog from the Varsity and go to visit.”

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