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Alabama officials accept water deal with optimism

By Ben Evans
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — For weeks, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley has accused the federal government of catering to big-city water demands from Atlanta while ignoring his state's needs downstream amid a record drought.

In speeches, press conferences and letters to the White House, he angrily denounced the Army Corps of Engineers over the amount of water it diverts into Georgia reservoirs, insisting that Georgia was overstating its crisis and that any cuts to river flows into Alabama would wreck his economy.

"This is about men and wo-men losing their jobs," he said at a press conference last week. Earlier he had called a corps proposal "unconscionable."

But on Thursday, in what appeared to be an about-face, Riley struck a different tone as he stood beside Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue in Washington to announce a temporary agreement that would allow Georgia to keep more water.

"I think we'll be fine," he said of the plan to reduce river flows by 16 percent on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin that runs along the Alabama-Georgia border.

Shelby's remarks

Riley wasn't the only Alabama official changing his tune about the impacts of the proposal.

Sen. Richard Shelby, who has adamantly opposed Georgia's efforts to capture more water, initially sent out a statement Thursday calling flow reductions in the river system "imprudent."

"These are federal lakes and the water should be allowed to fairly flow to all along the river," the statement said.

But his office later issued an updated statement saying the Alabama Republican was "pleased" with the meeting and "hopeful" that the temporary arrangement can pave the way for a long-term settlement.

Asked about their newfound optimism Friday, Riley and Shelby said Alabama met many of its goals in Thursday's deal, which was brokered by the Bush administration. The flow reductions called for under the deal are less than what Georgia wanted and are "manageable" for Alabama users, particularly the Farley Nuclear Power Plant, they said.

But no specific Georgia concessions were announced at Thursday's press conference at the Interior Department, and while Riley flew home quietly, Perdue returned to a celebratory press conference in Atlanta minutes after he stepped out of his plane.

Ultimately, he was able to tell Georgians that he got what the state has been seeking: more water.

"The good news is, we were successful," Perdue said to a bank of television cameras. "We got the Corps of Engineers' attention."

Success for Alabama

Riley, meanwhile, had a tougher message to sell.

"Alabama has always understood that it will have to bear its fair share of the pain, but Georgia's proposals would have made Alabama bear all the pain," Riley said in a written statement Friday. "I told the corps that Alabama would not stand for that, and we are pleased with the results."

Alabama officials also claimed success over water releases from Lake Allatoona in the region's other main river basin, the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa, although details on just what the state might get remained murky Friday and the flows through Allatoona are much smaller than those discussed Thursday.

It was the corps' proposals on the flow from Allatoona that Riley called "unconscionable."

Riley said the corps agreed to crack down on the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority, which Alabama claims is taking more water from Lake Allatoona than allowed under its contract with the corps.

But a corps official said the agency has not determined whether the water authority is using too much water and has agreed only to look into the matter. The agency plans to send a letter to the authority next week asking about its usage, said Maj. Daren Payne, deputy commander of the corps' district office in Mobile.

Glenn Page, the general manager of the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority, said he has never been notified of any concerns related to their water agreement with the agency and that it is "absolutely not" exceeding its contract.

"We have a water system that supplies water to 800,000 people in five counties," he said. "We're going to continue to operate the system to meet the needs of our customers."

Meanwhile, downstream users along the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin began assessing the agreement Friday as more details were released.

Billy Houston, executive director of the Tri-River Waterways Development Association, which promotes development along the rivers, said the reduced flows could drive up costs for paper mills and other businesses. Ultimately, the change could lead to job losses if the flows aren't restored, he said.

"It's just something they're all going to have to adjust to I'm afraid, and hopefully it will be short-lived," Houston said. "It's a major concern, but we know that pain is involved."

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

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