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Drought deepens water war
Tri-state battle reaches new level as Georgia seeks to cut flow to Alabama, Florida

By Greg Bluestein
Associated Press Writer

ATLANTA — The record drought gripping the Southeast has pushed a three-state water fight to a new level, pitting state against state in a legal battle that pins the federal government in the middle.

The governors of Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been locked in a tug-of-war for almost two decades over federal water resources, and the drought gripping much of the Southeast has intensified the legal battle.

Like three thirsty children trying to drink from a single hose, even the most minor disruption in the flow has a ripple effect. And Georgia’s decision Friday to file a lawsuit demanding that the U.S. Army Corps slow the draining of Georgia’s reservoirs was sure to set off a new round of litigation as each state scrambles to make its case.

“The stakes are at the highest they have been,” said Todd Silliman, an Atlanta lawyer who represents Georgia in the court battle. “We haven’t been facing these types of depletions of our reservoirs since this litigation has begun.”

The bickering among the three states started in the late 1980s when the Corps unrolled a new plan guiding how three Georgia reservoirs that feed the region should be used.

Alabama challenged the plan in 1990, but over the next few years, state leaders were unable to cobble together a permanent pact. Instead, they adopted what Corps Maj. Daren Payne called a “live and let live” system.

“It was essentially: What you have been taking out, keep taking out, and what you need, go ahead and take,” said Payne, the deputy commander of the Corps’ Mobile office. “But after a few droughts, live and let live is not really viable any more.”

There are now five pending federal lawsuits involving the region’s water, but despite a drought that has spread through the region, there is no permanent agreement in sight.

Georgia has sought to persuade the Corps to curb water releases from Lake Lanier, Atlanta’s main water source, which is within three months of depleting its water storage.

More than a billion gallons flow downstream from the North Georgia lake every day, much of it flowing southwest to Alabama and eventually to Florida. The Corps bases its water releases on two requirements: The minimum flow needed to operate a coal-fired power plant in Florida and mandates to protect two mussel species in a Florida river.

In recent years, Florida has complained the state is not sending enough water downstream to protect the endangered and threatened mussels on the banks of a drying river. And Alabama has contended it needs more water to cope with the dry conditions.

In the middle of the fight is the Corps, which has said it is trying to do its best to follow federal guidelines that dictate how much water should be released.

But a move this week by the Corps may have signaled a policy shift. Under pressure from Georgia’s federal lawmakers, the Corps said this week it will update the formula it uses to guide how Georgia and Alabama share water in a major river basin.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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