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Last updated 5:14PM ET
March 7, 2021
Congressional Dems Critical of Tri-State Water Dispute
(APR - Alabama Public Radio ) - Democrats on Capitol Hill said Tuesday that the Republican governors of Alabama, Florida and Georgia are leaving their states unprepared for another dry summer by failing to settle their differences over water rights.

At a House hearing on the region's lingering drought, Democratic lawmakers said the governors and the Bush administration should recommit to talks before winter rains taper off.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said the continued uncertainty is generating anxiety and could prompt businesses to move away or reconsider locating in the area.

"It is unacceptable that negotiations have broken down while the people of this region grow increasingly worried," Johnson said.

He and others also criticized the governors for declining to participate in the hearing, called by House Transportation and Infrastructure water subcommittee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat.

"The road to an equitable solution lies not in the courts but at the negotiating table," the chairwoman said. "But first (the states) must show up."

The governors Charlie Crist of Florida, Sonny Perdue of Georgia and Bob Riley of Alabama recently broke off water negotiations mediated by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. They said they could not resolve their differences and would refocus on court battles that began almost 20 years ago.

As the litigation proceeds, federal officials are working on a new water-sharing plan to impose upon the states, and Tuesday's hearing again illustrated the competing demands for the region's river basins.

Robert Hunter, commissioner of Atlanta's department of watershed management, said the main water reservoir for the area, Lake Lanier, remains well below where it stood this time last year, even after recent rains.

The problem, he said, is not a lack of water, but how it is being managed by the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies.

"The need for action is immediate," he said. "First of all, the Corps needs to stop over-releasing."

Others said downstream users are the ones who need relief.

Kevin Begos, who heads a task force representing oystermen and the seafood industry in Franklin County, Fla., said low river flows into Florida's Apalachicola Bay have cut shrimp and oyster harvests to levels not seen in decades.

Sam Hamilton, southeast regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said threatened species that depend on strong river flows are also a primary concern.

"They're an indicator of the health of the environment and really become magnified by the drought," he said.

Even some fellow Georgians accused metro Atlanta of expecting too much.

"I will not let downstream Georgia communities ... have their needs trampled without due consideration in a stampede to protect unrestricted and unplanned growth in water use of the northern part of the state," Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Democrat who represents a southwestern Georgia district, said in a written statement.

Rep. John Boozman of Arkansas, the top-ranking Republican on the subcommittee, criticized Democrats for rehashing an old debate and said the hearing would have been more productive by focusing on solutions from other parts of the country.

"Wisely, the three governors respectfully declined to participate today, which leaves me some hope that they are interested in keeping down the rhetoric," Boozman said.

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