Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Group formed to help resolve tri-state water dispute

By Bruce Ritchie

A diverse coalition of groups within Alabama, Florida and Georgia is trying to encourage a discussion of water issues that have divided residents of the three states in the past.

The states have been fighting in federal court since 1990 over water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river system. Alabama and Georgia want water held in reservoirs for cities, recreational users, agriculture and industry while Florida says it wants to protect fish and wildlife in the Apalachicola River and the seafood industry around Apalachicola Bay.

Representatives of several interest groups have formed what they're calling the ACF Stakeholders to find "equitable solutions" that ensure the river basin is a "sustainable resource for current and future generations."

Dan Tonsmeire of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper environmental group said he thinks the ACF Stakeholders can help accomplish what the governors of the three states have been unable to do -- reach an agreement.

"The answer is an emphatic yes," he said. "It wouldn't be hard for this group to do more than they've done. As far as I know, they have yet to make any real headway toward any type of settlement."

A Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokesman said DEP wishes the group well but added that it's too early to tell what role the group will play. DEP welcomes hearing about any potential solutions to the water dispute, department spokesman Doug Tobin said in an e-mail.

The governors of the three states were unable to resolve their differences during private talks in 2007 and through public negotiations under an interstate compact from 1997 to 2003. The states have been divided over how to define a drought and how much water to hold back in reservoirs during those dry periods.

In July, U.S. District Judge Paul A. Magnuson sided with Florida and Alabama on a major issue, ruling that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers illegally had been allowing water in the Lake Lanier federal reservoir north of Atlanta to be used by Georgia cities. That's prompted something of a political crisis in Georgia, where Gov. Sonny Perdue has tapped Georgia Power chief Mike Garrett to lead a group in his state to work on a solution.

Perdue and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley have asked Crist to meet to discuss river issues but Crist has not responded.

A year ago, representatives of eight waterway interest groups first met to discuss ways to give stakeholders a voice in the process. The groups were Apalachicola Riverkeeper, the Lake Lanier Association, the Tri-Rivers Waterway Development Association, the Atlanta Regional Commission, Southern Nuclear (part of the Southern Co.), the Gwinnett County, Ga. water utility and former water utility managers from the Georgia cities of La Grange and Columbus.

"The intention was for it to be a broad-based stakeholder group and try to get beyond the litigation and all of the mired-down positions that we have gotten into because of the litigation," Tonsmeire said.

Apalachicola Bay seafood workers have been at opposite ends of the basin and political spectrum from homeowners and boating interests on Georgia's Lake Lanier. But Wilton Rooks of the Lake Lanier Association said he thinks all sides can find common ground.

"There has been a lot of finger-pointing in the past -- That's what we are trying to get away from," he said.

"Our challenge is to try to find comon ground -- not figure out who has the biggest boxing gloves in a polarized fight," he said.

The ACF Stakeholders group is recruiting governing board members from each of the four basins within the river system. The board will hold its first plenary session during the second week of December, according to a news release from the stakeholders group. For more information, go to the group's Web site at www.acfstakeholders.org.

(Map courtesy of ACF Stakeholders. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission).

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