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THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 1, 2007
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Corps to cut
water levels?

Agency officials say many users in Ala., Fla. can make do with less

By Ben Evans
Associated Press Writer

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has determined that many industrial and municipal users in Alabama and Florida could tolerate reduced flows in rivers that are at the heart of a raging water war in the region, a top agency officials said Wednesday.

But Maj. Daren Payne, deputy commander of the corps' Mobile district, said it remains unclear how much of a reduction would be acceptable to those users, or whether downstream mussels and sturgeon protected under the Endangered Species Act could also survive.

'Something less than the current flows'

"What it comes down to is whether we can reduce the flows enough to still save the species and meet all the users' needs downstream," Payne said in an interview. "We're finding now that the power plants and a lot of the other interests can operate at something less than the current flows."

Payne said the Corps will release a biological assessment for species impacts by Friday, laying out several options for altering the water releases from the federal reservoirs. That assessment will go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will issue its own opinion — likely by mid-November — on how lower flows would affect the species.

The Corps' assessments will figure prominently in meetings among state leaders in Washington on Thursday over whether the federal government should hold back more water in Atlanta-area reservoirs to shore up the city's drinking supply.

With a historic drought gripping the region, Georgia officials have argued that the corps is ignoring a potential crisis as it continues releasing millions of gallons of water from the Atlanta area's main water source, Lake Lanier.

Georgia officials have sought to blame the crisis on Endangered Species Act protections for downstream mussels and sturgeon, but Alabama and Florida leaders say the issue is much larger. The downstream states insist that the corps already is holding back too much water for Georgia and that further reductions in the river flows could shut down power plants, farms, commercial fisheries and other businesses.

The governors of the three states are slated for a three-hour meeting with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and other Bush administration officials Thursday in an effort to reach a temporary agreement.

Earlier Wednesday, Georgia environmentalists blamed chronic mismanagement of the Atlanta area's water supply for the water crisis that has pitted the states against each other.

Instead of pointing fingers at endangered mussels downstream, officials should be looking at ways the metro-Atlanta region can better handle growth and encourage conservation, said members of the Georgia Water Coalition, a consortium of environmental groups.

'Mismanagement'

"The water crisis in metro Atlanta is largely due to mismanagement of existing resources," Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Sally Bethea said at a news conference outside the state Capitol on Wednesday.

Bethea said instead of building additional reservoirs in North Georgia, as legislative leaders have suggested, the state should be spurred by the current drought to look at ways to use what it has more efficiently.

The coalition took the wraps off a report card which gave the Atlanta region failing grades when it comes to encouraging water conservation.

The group said the region relies too much on septic tanks, which are slower than sewer systems in returning waters to rivers. And the group said water use in metro Atlanta is about 70 gallons per person per day. That's far higher than the 45.2 gallons per person considered to be a conservation level.

The group's report also blasted the state Legislature for failing to pass bills that would have required Atlanta's 1 million older homes to be retrofitted with water-conserving plumbing fixtures when the homes are sold. And it said that, on average, metro Atlanta water lines leak nearly twice as much as industry standards say is acceptable.

Rep. Brian Thomas, a Democrat from Lilburn, said elected officials should have acted sooner to avert a water catastrophe.

"The notion that this issue somehow snuck up on us really isn't tenable," Thomas said.

Joe Cook, executive director of the Coosa Basin Initiative, described as "ludicrous" some recent remarks by Gov. Sonny Perdue and others suggesting that booming development in the Atlanta area was not responsible for the water shortage.

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

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