Fight over Southeastern water escalates

Published 12:38 am Friday, October 26, 2007

ATLANTA (AP) — With an epic drought gripping the region, Georgia lawmakers announced plans Thursday for a network of state reservoirs, while the governors of Alabama and Florida warned that Georgia’s consumption threatens their downstream states.

The Georgia plan would involve building at least four new reservoirs and expanding existing ones. Lawmakers did not say how much state funding would go toward bolstering the state’s water supply.

‘‘We think it’s time to jump-start the building of reservoirs in Georgia,’’ House Speaker Glenn Richardson said.

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When the state’s legislative session begins in January, ‘‘We are going to provide the full energy of the state behind this,’’ Richardson said. ‘‘Frankly, we should have been doing this before now.’’

Alabama, Georgia and Florida are mired in a decades-long water fight over federal reservoirs. The drought — which government forecasters reported could soon get worse — has intensified the jockeying.

Caught in the middle is the Corps of Engineers, which says it is complying with federal guidelines by sending millions of gallons of water from Georgia downstream to Florida and Alabama to supply power plants and protect federally threatened mussel species.

Almost a third of the Southeast is covered by an exceptional drought, the worst category, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. The burgeoning Atlanta area, with a population of 5 million, is in the middle of the affected region.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has ordered state agencies and public utilities to reduce usage, and authorities have banned outdoor watering in most of the state.

Georgia also sued the Corps last week, demanding it send less water downstream. That brought sharp responses from the governors of Alabama and Florida.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist wrote a letter this week to President Bush saying his state is ‘‘unwilling to allow the unrealistic demands of one region to further compromise the downstream communities.’’

Crist said allowing Georgia to fight drought by slowing water flow into Florida would imperil commercial fishing along the Florida Panhandle, and contended the three states need to work together on more research into alternative water sources.

His letter echoed a similar one that Alabama Gov. Bob Riley had sent to the president.

The White House announced Thursday that Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne would travel to Alabama and Georgia to meet Friday with Perdue and Riley, giving them an opportunity to make their case for federal relief.

Riley called Thursday for a truce to the tri-state water dispute. He said he could meet in Washington next week with Perdue and Crist.

Outside the gate to the Farley Nuclear Power Plant near the Georgia line in southeast Alabama, Riley said the plant could be forced to cut power production if the current flow of water on the Chattahoochee River is reduced.

Also on Thursday, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley testified before a congressional committee that the drought there is the worst that state has seen, and has hurt the state’s crops and livestock. He appealed to lawmakers to send money to drought-ravaged farms.