Perdue: Ga. will fight for Lanier water

Gov. Sonny Perdue said Tuesday that Georgia will “fight to the death” to keep drawing water from Lake Lanier, but he also vowed to pursue all legal and political avenues to resolve the state’s water war with Florida and Alabama.

A federal judge ruled last week that Georgia illegally gulps too much water from the lake and threatened to reduce the state’s consumption to levels not seen since the 1970s — when Atlanta was less than half its current size. He gave the three states three years to settle the case — or else Georgia will lose most access to Lanier.

Perdue, while saying he has no problem talking with neighboring governors, pledged to protect Georgia’s interests.

“I will not negotiate a deal that’s harmful to the future of Georgia. Just won’t happen,’’ Perdue said during a statehouse news conference. “We’ll take our chance in court before we’ll agree to a deal that does not meet the needs of a growing and prosperous Georgia.’’

Perdue also announced that Lake Lanier’s “stakeholders” – local government, political and business officials – will meet Thursday morning at the Governor’s Mansion to discuss ways to resolve the two-decade struggle over Lanier.

U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson on Friday ruled that it is illegal the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw water from Lake Lanier to meet Atlanta’s needs. Nearly three-quarters of metro Atlanta’s residents, or 3.5 million people, depend on the lake for drinking water.

Magnuson, who acknowledged that his ruling could be “draconian” for the region, noted that Congress will ultimately have to sign off on any solution. But Georgia’s congressional delegation, meeting Tuesday evening in Washington, prefers that Govs. Perdue, Charlie Crist (Florida) and Bob Riley (Alabama) settle matters first.

“The governor of Alabama is a Republican. The governor of Florida is a Republican. And Governor Perdue is the former chair of the Republican Governor’s Association. They should be able to do it,” U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said after the meeting.

In Atlanta, Perdue outlined a handful of options: talks with neighboring governors; federal intervention; a direct appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court; tapping other stretches of the Chattahoochee or other rivers; and, most prominently, an appeal of the judge’s ruling.

Perdue hinted that a Georgia appeal would focus on Magnuson’s decision not to hold a so-called remedy hearing before he ruled. The state’s attorneys had hoped to convince the judge that Georgia’s water use doesn’t unduly harm Florida and Alabama.

The governor remained quietly defiant throughout his news conference, dismissing blame for a two-decade long struggle that, once again, appears headed back to a courtroom.

“Anyone can Monday morning quarterback this,” he said. “It’s no different than a football game [in which] people wonder whether I should have thrown a pass or run up the middle.”

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) looked to the future Tuesday, not the 20-year history of failure and frustration.

“Water issues are very important and they’re very testy because everybody wants access to water,” Isakson said. “We need to find the catalyst that ... meets the interests of Georgia, Alabama and Florida together. Until you get to that point you’re not going to have a negotiated settlement.”