Georgia-Florida water fight becomes issue in presidential campaign

The exhausting regional battle over water rights that has divided Georgia, Florida and Alabama for more than two decades erupted on Thursday in a major way in the battle for Peach State votes for the March 1 primary.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gov. Nathan Deal said he wanted a “pointed” conversation with Jeb Bush — the candidate he ostensibly supports in the GOP race — over his position on the long-running legal feud. And he expressed deep disappointment with Marco Rubio’s stance on the same debate.

Deal’s harsh comments about the two Floridian presidential candidates injects the specter of the bitter, ongoing spat with Georgia’s southern neighbor into a presidential primary contest that has shifted south. While not backing off his support for Bush, he’s hoping to remind Georgia voters to keep the state’s costly legal battle in mind when they head to the polls.

“It’s important for me that I know where potential candidates stand on important issues to Georgia,” Deal said. “If Iowa gets to ask presidential candidates where they stand on ethanol, the state of Georgia ought to ask where they stand on water issues.”

It’s damaging news to a flailing Bush campaign that needs all the help it can get. After dismal finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Bush is staking his bid for the presidency on a better finish in South Carolina on Saturday and in Georgia and the sweep of Southern states that vote on March 1.

Deal said last year that he would support Bush and a trio of other governors in the race for president. With the other three now out of the contest, he made clear Thursday that his level of support for Bush depended on an upcoming conversation with the former Florida governor.

“Since Governor Bush was the governor of Florida, and since the state of Florida is now costing the state of Georgia millions of dollars in defending their lawsuit against us in the Supreme Court, it’s important to understand that if he’s elected president, where he stands on being fair to the citizens of Georgia in regards to water issues,” Deal said.

The Bush camp didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Georgia won a string of recent court victories in the long-running fight with Florida and Alabama over water rights, but the streak was snapped in 2014 when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a last-ditch legal maneuver by Florida seeking to limit Georgia’s water withdrawals from the Chattahoochee River to 1992 levels.

Georgia has so far spent $20 million on lawyers to fight over the litigation – on top of $20 million previously spent over the past 25 years. The state has tasked a small army of attorneys – about 70 at last count – who have pored over 4 million documents and at least 660,000 emails produced by Florida in the case.

Equally aggravating to Georgia officials is the attempt by Rubio and other allies to insert a harmless-sounding paragraph into a federal spending bill last year that could have tipped the scales ever so slightly in Georgia’s fight with its neighbors over water.

Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, joined with Alabama’s two Republican senators in November to criticize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ “mismanagement” of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin and urged that both states be shielded from any shenanigans in the pending appropriations bill.

The language was yanked from the $1.1 trillion federal spending bill in December after the Georgia congressional delegation threatened a revolt. But sour feelings remain. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Gainesville Republican, called it a “slap in the face.” And Deal remains sore over the attempt, pronouncing himself “very disappointed” in Rubio’s stance on the debate.

“I have concerns about that. I let him know that I have concerns about that. He has not shown me the respect of even calling me to say why he did it,” Deal said in the interview.

“There may be explanations that he can offer, but I think he deserves to offer the state of Georgia answers in that,” Deal said. “I don’t think we want a president who is going to take undue sides in settling disputes between the three states.”

At a press conference Thursday for Rubio at his new campaign office in Cobb County, Rubio’s supporters defended his position.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican and Rubio backer, said he agreed with Deal’s position but also can’t blame Rubio for his stance.

“When it comes to water wars, I agree with Governor Deal. I think Senator Rubio is doing what he needs to do with his state,” he said.

“I wouldn’t determine my vote on a letter written by a senator on water wars,” he added. “I would decide on who is best equipped to lead the country.”

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