The upper Flint River near Talbotton. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Ex-Georgia official faces water war grilling

It was Day 3 of the water wars trial here in rainy Portland. Florida is suing Georgia demanding an “equitable apportionment” of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers, as well as the streams and aquifers in Southwest Georgia. Florida wants a guaranteed flow of water at the state line, as well as a cap on how much water Georgia can consume.

The U.S. Supreme Court appointed Ralph Lancaster Jr., a Maine attorney with extensive experience in interstate water fights, as the special master to resolve the 27-year-old legal battle.

Thursday’s highlights include:

— Florida attorney Philip Perry deployed state and federal documents, internal memos and handwritten notes to portray Georgia as willfully delaying any meaningful water conservation measures across the Southwest Georgia corn, peanut and cotton belt.

Harold Reheis, a former director of Georgia’s environmental agency, tried to parry Perry’s accusations, including that Georgia knew as far back as the late 1990s that the Flint and its tributaries routinely ran dry to Florida’s economic and ecological detriment.

Perry pointed out that state and federal officials repeatedly warned Reheis about dried-up streams and depleted aquifers yet Georgia postponed meaningful conservation measures. Meanwhile, Georgia continued issuing well-drilling permits and allowed a surge in irrigated Southwest Georgia acres.

He also accused Reheis of withholding critical water usage information from Florida during talks to establish a water-sharing compact.

“Compacts can be expected to last for decades,” Reheis testified. “I wanted to make sure Georgia’s expected growth in population and irrigation would be reasonably accommodated.”

— Lancaster, the special master, asked witnesses twice Thursday their thoughts on a possible Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint compact. The questions led court observers to surmise that a compact, where an independent commission routinely jiggers river flow and storage targets to satisfy all states, will be included in his decision.

The trial could last until Christmas. The high court could accept Lancaster’s decision and vote by late 2017.

— Conspicuously absent this week has been much mention of Metro Atlanta and its consumption of Chattahoochee River water.

“This issue can’t be resolved without considering impacts on the Chattahoochee,” said Kevin Jeselnik, an attorney with the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper attending the trial. “Florida is focusing on the Flint so far, I think, because it’s easier to convince the special master to force changes on that river that doesn’t have five federal reservoirs on it.”

The trial resumes Friday with testimony on Apalachicola Bay oysters.

Read more about the water wars here and here.

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