Deal sets meetings with Alabama, Florida leaders on water wars

After decades of squabbling with neighbors over regional water rights, Georgia’s leaders are trying a more personal approach.

Gov. Nathan Deal traveled to Alabama’s statehouse this month to hold a private discussion with Gov. Robert Bentley about the dispute. And he’s sought a similar meeting with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who accepted the offer.

The meetings, disclosed in documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through a records request, come as the legal battle between the states enters a brutal new phase. The U.S. Supreme Court in November surprised state leaders by agreeing to hear the last-ditch challenge from Florida seeking to restrict Georgia's withdrawals from the Chattahoochee River, forcing Georgia to dig in for a longer battle.

The new round of litigation has already prompted Deal to beef up the state’s legal staff, tap a water czar to coordinate Georgia’s efforts and set aside millions of dollars for new legal fees. His willingness to meet with counterparts may reflect a desire to strike a compromise rather than risk a painful court ruling.

“The last round of lawsuits cost Georgia taxpayers millions, and the costs are already mounting in this round,” said Gil Rogers, a water policy attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Getting them to hash it out face to face could be a promising sign. But it’s too early to know for sure.”

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said it’s not unusual for officials from the three states to discuss the water fight, but this appears to be the first time since shortly after his 2010 election that the governor has sought one-on-one meetings on the water dispute with his counterparts in Alabama and Florida.

The fight between the three states involves water flowing from Lake Lanier downstream through Alabama to Florida’s Apalachicola Bay. Georgia’s two neighbors have argued for decades that it 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.

It could be an opportune time for the states to make a deal. All three governors are in their second terms, all are Republicans and none can run for re-election again. That could potentially free them up to make what could be a risky political decision.

Yet there were similar hopes for a compromise in 2009 when then-Gov. Sonny Perdue organized a water summit with his GOP counterparts in Alabama and Florida. That effort gained little traction.

The records show that Deal met with Bentley at his office in Montgomery on March 16 for “general discussions regarding water.” Robinson would not elaborate on any specifics on the trip, which didn’t appear on Deal’s public calendar, but Bentley aide Jennifer Ardis called it a “productive meeting.”

“Governor Bentley remains committed to protecting the rights of Alabama citizens while working to resolve the issues with Georgia in a way that is fair and equitable to all parties involved,” she said.

Deal also reached out to Scott in February to set up a meeting to discuss the dispute, adding that he would happily travel to Tallahassee for the meeting.

“Since our last meeting in 2011, there have been several key updates and I believe it would be beneficial for both parties to sit down and discuss,” he wrote.

In a strange twist, Scott replied almost a month later that his office didn’t initially receive the letter. It was only discovered, he wrote, when it popped up during a legal review of documents for the litigation.

“I welcome a renewed discussion with you and your staff with an eye toward reaching agreement to fairly share these vital interstate waters,” wrote Scott, who suggested Deal bring key aides with him.

“Building on the foundation of our prior negotiations will hopefully allow us to reach agreement more expeditiously, and our respective concerns may be addressed sooner than later.”

An aide to Scott said Friday in a statement that a meeting with Deal still has not been scheduled.

“Governor Scott looks forward to discussing this important issue with Governor Deal,” said John Tupps, Scott’s deputy communications director. “Governor Scott will continue to work to protect families whose livelihoods depend on the Apalachicola Bay.”

The Sunshine State fired the most recent salvo in a fight that began in 1970 when it took the unusual step of asking the high court to limit Georgia's water withdrawals from the Chattahoochee River to 1992 levels, when metro Atlanta's population hovered around 3 million people. It now surpasses 5.4 million.

To great surprise, the high court decided to take the case in a rare setback for Georgia, which had won a series of recent legal victories. In court filings since then, Florida has argued that Georgia's thirst is threatening the fragile ecosystem of the Apalachicola Bay — and the fisheries and oystermen who depend on it. Georgia has flatly rejected those claims.

Alabama has long shared Florida’s concerns. It depends on water flowing from Georgia to cool power plants and irrigate its farms, and it has argued that Georgia keeps more than its fair share.

Ralph Lancaster, a Maine attorney appointed by the Supreme Court as a special master to handle the case, sounded encouraged that Deal had reached out to Scott for a meeting. In a transcript of a conference call of a status update on the case, Lancaster said it was "one of the first major positive things I have heard in a long time" and offered the federal government's help.

“This thing is going to cost millions, if not billions of dollars before we’re finished,” he said, adding: “I have said before and I will continue to say until you’re sick and tired of hearing it that I think that the best possible result is a settlement between the two states.”

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