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Last updated 2:44AM ET
March 9, 2021
Feds Approve Temporary Water Sharing Plan
(APR - Alabama Public Radio ) - The Army Corps of Engineers rolled out a plan Friday that allows Georgia to keep more of the water in north Georgia's Lake Lanier, a focal point in the tug-of-war over water involving Alabama and Florida.

The Corps immediately reduced the flow of water from Lanier to Florida by about 5 percent following a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that federally protected mussels can live with less of the water from the lake.

Under the new plan, which is in place through June, the Corps can eventually reduce the flows from Lanier by as much as 17 percent, depending on lake levels.

"We feel like we've got the most flexible system to meet the needs, from the headwaters of Lake Lanier down to Apalachicola Bay," said corps Brig. Gen. Joseph Schroedel.

It was good news for Georgia, which has complained that the federal government was sending millions of gallons of water downstream even as Lanier the main source of water for much of metro Atlanta was falling to record lows due to an epic drought gripping the region.

But the decision could set off another round of legal challenges aimed at the Corps, which manages regional water resources.

Florida environmental secretary Michael Sole, who has argued reducing the flows downstream could endanger the state's fishing economy, said the decision "further jeopardizes the threatened and endangered species" and "starves the overall health of the fragile ecosystem."

The three states have been locked in a legal battle over water rights since the early 1990s, but the fight has intensified in recent weeks as the record drought gripping the region has tightened.

The three governors are scheduled to meet in early December to hash out a long-term deal, and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said he appointed a federal team to help the governors broker an agreement.

"They're all neighbors, they're all working together," said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. "We'll get through this."

Earlier this month, at a three-state water meeting in Washington, the Corps said it wants to temporarily cut the flow of water to Florida by 16 percent until the drought breaks, but it first needed the approval of Fish and Wildlife.

But the tentative truce between the states didn't last long. Florida last week backed away from the agreement, saying the reductions could cause a "catastrophic collapse of the oyster industry" and "displace the entire economy" in northwest Florida.

Friday's announcement did little to satisfy Florida. Gov. Charlie Crist, who said he was "disappointed" by the news, said he will "continue to focus on the needs of the people who depend on a healthy Apalachicola Bay."

Alabama, for its part, seems mollified by the Corps' decision. Gov. Bob Riley said he was "very satisfied and very pleased" with the move, and he applauded a decision that will temporarily reduce the flows from the Jordan Dam by 20 percent.

In a phone interview, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said he was "optimistic" the governors could broker an agreement outside the courts.

"Hopefully we can avoid a legal fight. Once we have our federal partners engaged, we're better off in a conference room than a court room," he said.

Meanwhile in Washington, a panel of federal appeals court judges skeptically questioned whether the Corps even has the authority to allocate the lake for water supply instead of for its original purpose producing hydropower.

In one of seven active lawsuits in the water wars, attorneys for all three states argued over a 2003 settlement in which the Corps agreed to allow Georgia to use nearly 25 percent of Lanier for drinking water storage.

The agreement, which has not yet been implemented, is a linchpin of Georgia's water plans for the coming decades. The state traditionally gets water from Lanier under smaller, short-term contracts. A rejection of the longer-term agreement would be a major setback for the state.

Florida and Alabama have fought the agreement, arguing that Lanier was built to produce hydropower and that under federal law only Congress has authority to significantly alter the functions of federal reservoirs.

The three judges presiding over the case appeared to sympathize with Florida and Alabama during oral arguments, sharply questioning attorneys for Georgia and the Corps over claims that the shift is not significant enough to trigger congressional involvement.

"You don't think setting aside a quarter of the water for local drinking supply is an operational change?" Judge Brett Kavanaugh asked.

The overall dispute centers on how much water the Corps holds back in federal reservoirs near the head of two river basins in north Georgia that flow south into Florida and Alabama.

The fast-growing Atlanta region relies on the lakes for drinking water. But power plants in Florida and Alabama depend on healthy river flows, as do farms, commercial fisheries, industrial users and municipalities. The Corps also is required to release adequate flows to ensure habitats for species protected by the Endangered Species Act.


Associated Press reporter Ben Evans in Washington contributed to this story.

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