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Last updated 9:01AM ET
March 1, 2021
Focus Shifts After Tri-State Water Talks Fail
(APR - Alabama Public Radio ) - Lawyers for Georgia, Florida and Alabama are gearing up again for battle, now that tri-state water negotiations have collapsed and the federal government says it will decide how to dole out water rights in the region.

At least eight active lawsuits are pending involving the two-decade water feud, and state officials said they expect heavy activity in those cases this year.

At the same time, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will soon issue a short-term water operations plan a move that could set off a fresh wave of legal maneuvering.

"I expect that we will see progress on the cases in the courts," said Todd Silliman, an attorney with McKenna Long & Aldridge representing Georgia. "There are schedules in place now for those claims to be litigated this year."

After pledging last fall to reach a compromise, Govs. Sonny Perdue of Georgia, Charlie Crist of Florida and Bob Riley of Alabama broke off negotiations recently after months of talks mediated by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

The states kept the talks secret by signing a confidentiality agreement, so it's not clear where they broke down. But generally, Georgia says it needs more water from two major river basins, while Florida and Alabama say Georgia already takes too much and is crippling water flows downstream.

The next move could come from the federal government.

The Corps has begun writing a new short-term plan to govern river operations during severe drought.

It would replace an existing arrangement set to expire June 1 that Kempthorne announced at the start of the governors' talks in November, allowing Georgia to hold back more water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin that runs along the Alabama-Georgia border.

Florida immediately protested, saying reduced flows would irreparably harm its Apalachicola Bay. Sarah Williams, a spokeswoman for Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, said her state will closely monitor the new plan.

"We're hopeful that with all the information and all the talks that have taken place, the new plan will be more protective of the Apalachicola," Williams said.

The Corps also has begun rewriting control manuals that guide long-term water allocations in the river systems.

But because revising the manuals could take several years, action in the courts could supersede the Corps' decisions. The fundamental issue in the cases is whether the Corps is already misappropriating water.

In U.S. District Court for central Florida in Jacksonville, a half dozen cases challenging operations in the ACF river basin were combined into one case. Judge Paul Magnuson, who was brought in from Minnesota to handle the lawsuits, has set a status conference for next week, as well as a series of deadlines in the coming months.

In U.S. District Court for northern Alabama in Birmingham, Judge Karon Bowdre has established a similar schedule for Alabama's lawsuit over the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa basin, which runs through north Georgia but is mostly in Alabama.

Also, Georgia faces a March 21 deadline to ask the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington to review its decision last month invalidating an agreement between Georgia and the Corps for new water rights to Lake Lanier, a massive federal reservoir outside Atlanta.

In the ruling, the court said the Corps had no authority to give Georgia the additional water rights without first getting approval from Congress. Barring intervention from the U.S. Supreme Court, Alabama and Florida officials believe the ruling clarified the law in their favor for the pending cases in lower courts.

But Georgia maintains the ruling was more narrow and won't play a major role.

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