Deal meets with Florida governor to discuss water wars

Gov. Nathan Deal traveled Tuesday to Florida for the second round of those quiet meetings he arranged with neighboring states to hash out the latest phase in the water wars.

The meeting with Florida Gov. Rick Scott comes after Deal’s secretive meeting in March with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley that touched on Deal’s $300 million plan to build a system of reservoirs in North Georgia.

The meetings have been shrouded in secrecy ever since a court-appointed special master handling a round of lawsuits between Georgia and Florida ordered the states to keep quiet about the ongoing negotiations. Scott’s office, though, made public the scheduling change Tuesday afternoon. Deal’s aides declined to comment.

Deal has said he is optimistic that an agreement could be struck with the governors of both states with a bit of “imagination and ingenuity.”

“We’ve made good progress on our side of the line, and both governors have indicated a willingness to re-engage to see if we can finalize it,” Deal said in an interview before the gag order. “It’s better for us to re-engage than have a court try to decide it.”

The fight between the three states involves water flowing from Lake Lanier downstream through Alabama to Florida’s Apalachicola Bay. Alabama and Florida have said for decades that Georgia has drawn more than its share from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, posing a threat to the ecological system and harming the livelihoods of their residents.

Georgia, which rejects those claims, had won a string of legal battles until the U.S. Supreme Court’s surprise decision in November to hear a last-ditch challenge from Florida seeking to restrict Georgia’s withdrawals.

Deal’s willingness to meet with counterparts may reflect a desire to strike a compromise rather than risk a painful court ruling, though similar efforts in the past failed to gain traction. Ralph Lancaster, the special master appointed by the Supreme Court, has encouraged the two sides to keep talking, and he delivered a pointed admonition last week at the end of a hearing involving new claims from Florida and Georgia.

“Whatever the court does with this case after I make this report, we’re talking a lot of money and a result that I suggest neither one of you may be very happy with,” Lancaster said. “So, again and again, and again, I’m going to urge you to discuss settlement seriously.”

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