Three states seek to keep water rights talks secret

Georgia, Alabama and Florida are asking a federal judge to order that their water rights negotiations be kept secret.

In a motion filed this week, the three states say keeping their talks and related documents confidential "may encourage the open exchange of information and proposals necessary to address the issues... and discourage the improper dissemination of the same."

Some observers object.

"We actually keep asking ourselves ‘What is it that has got to be concealed here?'" said Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a Georgia water protection group.

"After 20 years, don't we all basically know the facts? Is this confidentiality arrangement really something just to serve as cover for political leaders -- the governors? Bottom line, we think secrecy is not in the best interest of all the people in the three states who rely on these river systems."

The executive committee of the ACF Stakeholders objected to the states' request in a letter sent to Federal District Judge Paul Magnuson Wednesday. The committee spoke for itself in the letter and not for the ACF Stakeholders' 95 members, which include power companies, local governments, environmentalists and others in Georgia and Florida that may have different positions on the issue.

“Making decisions that affect the lives of millions of people in secrecy will not garner the support necessary to sustain the implementation of the decisions," Wilton Rooks, chairman of the ACF Stakeholders executive committee wrote in the letter.

Asked about the reasons for the request for secrecy, a spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue referred the AJC back to the motion before the judge.

"This request is yet another proof point that all three states are committed to working together to reach a tri-state water deal," Bert Brantley, Perdue's spokesman, said in an email.

Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, said in an email that keeping the negotiations confidential "allows for free and open discussions without the fear of compromising ongoing litigation."

An official in Alabama Gov. Bob Riley's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment Wednesday.

The three Republican governors met behind closed doors in Montgomery, Ala., last month. When they emerged from that meeting they announced they had directed their staffs to come up with a water-sharing compact they could all agree on. They said whatever compact they draft will be sent to their state legislatures and then Congress for consideration. The three states plan to meet five more times in the coming months to negotiate, according to their motion.

Georgia must work out a sharing agreement with the other two states by July 2012 or have its supply of drinking water from Lake Lanier cut substantially. The Army Corps of Engineers has announced it will tighten the spigot at the federal reservoir then to comply with Magnuson’s stinging order in the roughly 20-year-old water dispute between the states, unless such an agreement is reached.

Magnuson ruled in July that the corps has permitted Georgia communities to withdraw water from the reservoir for decades even though Congress didn't authorize its construction for that purpose. Magnuson has given the states and Congress three years to decide how the reservoir should be used before restricting access to the lake to levels from the mid-1970s, when Atlanta was a fraction of its current size.