Gov. Nathan Deal made another quiet visit to a neighboring state to try to negotiate a truce in water wars litigation that is costing Georgia taxpayers $21 million this year alone.
A public records request revealed that Deal met with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley last week for the latest round of negotiations in the decades-long battle over regional water rights.
Deal trekked to Montgomery in March 2015 to discuss his plan to build a system of state reservoirs in North Georgia to beef up the state’s water storage, a proposal that’s stoked fears in Alabama and Florida that Georgia is trying to hoard more of the resource.
An order by a U.S. Supreme Court-appointed special master requiring Georgia to keep quiet has shrouded the negotiations in secrecy, though top Deal aide Chris Riley said the visit was part of an “ongoing discussion.”
The trip to Alabama was at least the third round in recent discussions with neighboring states over the long-running legal feud as an Oct. 31 court date nears. Deal also visited Florida Gov. Rick Scott in June 2015 to discuss the litigation between the three states.
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. The special master in the case has repeatedly urged the governors to reach an out-of-court accord.
In the meantime, the public cost for the litigation continues to mount. Deal signed an executive order last month to shift an additional $5 million from his emergency fund to go to the costs of the legal battle with Florida over water rights. That’s on top of $16 million he’d already set aside for the case’s legal fees in two previous orders this year.
That means the state has set aside about $21 million this year alone for the never-ending legal battle — and the trial, to be held in Maine, is still months away from beginning.
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.
Georgia, which rejects those claims, has — in addition to setting aside millions for new legal fees — beefed up the state’s legal staff and tapped a water czar. And the governor’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 past years failed to gain traction.
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