Water negotiator 'guardedly' upbeat about deal

Georgia Power President Michael Garrett, chosen by Gov. Sonny Perdue to end the Southeastern water war, said Thursday he’s “guardedly optimistic” that a water-sharing deal between Georgia and Alabama can be reached by year’s end despite nearly two decades of fruitless efforts.

Then, according to Garrett, Georgia can attempt to resolve a separate water fight with Florida over the Chattahoochee River.

Garrett, in an interview after a Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce luncheon, also welcomed an Alabama judge’s decision this week to, in essence, postpone a trial over metro Atlanta’s water withdrawals from Lake Allatoona.

U.S. District Court Judge Karon Bowdre decided to give the governors of Georgia and Alabama time to negotiate a water-sharing deal.

“I don’t think it will take a long time to determine whether or not we can do a deal,” Garrett said. “If we’re not able to do something by the end of the year, it will be terribly disappointing.”

Atlanta and Perdue gained some breathing room when Bowdre stayed, until mid-November, Alabama’s case against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Allatoona.

Garrett labeled Bowdre’s move “a good sign for Georgia” — even if Perdue and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley don’t quite reach an Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) river basin agreement by then.

“The judge was very smart to say, ‘Let’s see if these negotiations are going to work,’ ” said Garrett, who visited Alabama on Monday for water war talks. Bert Brantley, spokesman for Perdue, noted that his boss and Riley have agreed to meet before Bowdre’s mid-November deadline.

(Florida, though, has not. Brantley said Perdue’s staff hasn’t heard from Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Crist’s spokesmen haven’t returned numerous calls this week from the AJC.)

Bowdre’s decision “is a very positive sign and proof that both states believe some progress and gains can be made in the negotiations,” Brantley said. “All sides know very well the issues; it’s just a matter of will to get a deal done.”

Riley’s staff, too, praised Bowdre’s decision — a rare, harmonious note from the two competing states. “Alabama has always felt that a solution is within reach as long as all parties come to the table ready to compromise,” said Todd Stacy, spokesman for Riley.

Garrett holds the seemingly impossible position of trying to end 19 years worth of legal, political and hydrological disagreements between Georgia, Alabama and Florida. The water wars — one pits Alabama against Georgia, the other sets Georgia against Florida and Alabama — have ebbed and flowed since 1990 when Georgia’s neighbors first took aim at Lakes Lanier and Allatoona.

Both cases are disturbingly similar — from Georgia’s unfortunate vantage point. Alabama and Florida have sued the Corps over its management of the two lakes. Alabama claims the Corps allows metro Atlanta to take too much water from Allatoona, which feeds the ACT river basin that flows through Alabama.

Alabama and Florida also accuse the Corps of letting Atlanta tap too much of Lanier, which flows into the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin that empties into Florida. Nearly 4.5 million Atlantans depend upon the reservoirs for drinking water. U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson’s ruling last month that Atlanta’s withdrawals from Lanier are illegal could signal the death knell for North Georgia’s growth and development.

Magnuson said if no deal is reached within three years, he’ll restrict Atlanta’s withdrawals from Lanier to mid-1970s levels. Goodbye sprawl and prospects for an additional 3 million people expected to move to North Georgia by 2040.

Garrett, who heads up Perdue’s water-war task force of 130 business, government and political officials, said Magnuson “probably did us a favor.”

“We’ve been working on this for 18, 19 years, and it needs to come to some resolution,” he said. “We can’t go back to the office and push this to the side and ignore it.”

Garrett added, though, if no deal is reached by Magnuson’s deadline, then North Georgia communities — Lanier-dependent Gwinnett County in particular — “need to look at emergency interim measures” to keep the taps flowing. He meant lawsuits.

Garrett, who worked for Alabama Power for more than a decade, has reviewed water war negotiations between Alabama and Georgia that almost came to fruition in 2003 and 2007. Two sticking points then and now: water flows at the Georgia-Alabama line; and lake levels, during drought and non-drought times, at the seven reservoirs Alabama Power owns along the Tallapoosa River.

Dealing with Alabama before Florida “is clearly my goal,” Garrett said. “I know the players in Alabama, the issues over there. They know me. [And] they don’t have much of an issue with the ACF. They entered into that lawsuit [with Florida], in my opinion, to get attention on the ACT.”

Alabama’s lawsuit contends Georgia takes too much Chattahoochee River water upstream at Lanier to the detriment of Alabama Power’s nuclear power plant near Dothan. Other industries and Alabama communities use the Chattahoochee, too. Riley’s spokesman disagreed with Garrett’s contention that the Chattahoochee isn’t critical to Alabama.

“Alabama is interested in protecting all the water that Alabamans depend on,” Stacy said. “That includes both river basins.”

Garrett’s strategy follows this trajectory: appease Alabama first; then mollify Florida and its stated desires to protect oysters and mollusks in the Apalachicola Bay; and, finally, get Congress to authorize Lanier for drinking water. Magnuson ruled that Congress never established Lanier as a source of drinking water. He also suggested Congress’ imprimatur on any water-sharing deal.

“It should be relatively easy to get Congress to pass it if we get all three states on the same page,” Garrett said.