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Georgia Governor Seeks Talks in Apalachicola Water Dispute

Steve Newborn

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has tried to kick-start negotiations with Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley to try to reach agreement in the long-running battle over a river system the three states share.

Deal's effort follows decades of litigation over the amount of freshwater flowing from the top of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, in north Georgia, downstream to the Florida Panhandle's Apalachicola Bay.

It also follows a U.S. Supreme Court decision in November to consider a lawsuit filed by Florida against Georgia, aimed at increasing the flows.

Florida has long contended that Georgia takes too much water from the Chattahoochee River to meet Atlanta's growing demand. In the middle of the fight is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the flows and has relied on a 2011 ruling from a federal appeals court that said Georgia has a legal right to water from Lake Lanier in the northern part of the river system.

No date for a meeting between Scott and Deal has been set, according to Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz, "but Gov. Scott looks forward to discussing this important issue with Gov. Deal. Gov. Scott will continue to work to protect families whose livelihoods depend on the Apalachicola Bay."

Deal met with Bentley on March 16.

"The governors discussed both Alabama and Georgia concerns with competing water rights for the citizens of each state," Bentley spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis wrote in an email. "It was a productive meeting, and Gov. Bentley remains committed to protecting the rights of Alabama citizens while working to resolve the issues with Georgia in a way that is fair and equitable to all parties involved."

"Gov. Deal’s overarching goal is and always has been a tri-state settlement by the governors that will provide for the long-term water needs of Georgia, Florida and Alabama," Deal spokesman Brian Robinson wrote in an email. "He does not believe that litigation is the best way forward. Even though we feel confident in the legal merits of our argument, litigation comes at great cost to all parties involved."

The Apalachicola Bay oyster industry is a major economic driver in the Franklin County area and has been hard hit by factors such as drought and reduced freshwater flows. The bay collapsed in 2012, and since then, many oystermen have had to leave the area to find work. As a sign of the severity of the problems, the area has been declared a fishery-resource disaster by the federal government since August 2013.

The Supreme Court's decision to take the case shifted the legal momentum, however briefly, away from Georgia.

"The Supreme Court in November surprised state leaders by agreeing to hear the last-ditch challenge from Florida, forcing Georgia to dig in for a longer battle," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Friday. "The new round of litigation has already prompted Deal to beef up the state's legal staff, tap a water czar to coordinate Georgia's efforts and set aside millions of dollars for new legal fees. His willingness to meet with counterparts may reflect a desire to strike a compromise rather than risk a painful court ruling."

Florida is seeking an "equitable apportionment" of water from the river system, according to court filings.

"Florida has exhausted all other reasonable means to arrest Georgia's unchecked use of water and halt the continuing degradation of the Apalachicola region,'' said the lawsuit filed with the Supreme Court. "There is no other forum in which Florida may vindicate its interests and obtain the requisite relief against Georgia."

Georgia responded in legal briefs that the Supreme Court should not move forward with the case, saying in January, "Florida mischaracterizes its own evidence about Georgia's consumption of water and wildly overstates the effect of that consumption on flow at the state line and any harm that might result from any slightly reduced flow. And Florida fails to acknowledge that most of its alleged harms have been extensively evaluated and rejected by expert federal agencies."

Dan Tonsmeire of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an advocacy group that has fought for increased flows to the bay, called the proposed meeting "a good start, but I think they ought to include the stakeholders … because they are the people most affected by the decisions and most familiar with what the impacts would be" from any tri-state water compact.

In a March 12 letter accepting Deal's invitation, Scott asked the Georgia governor to "forward a proposal for resolving these issues." Deal's office did not respond to a query Monday about whether such a proposal was in the works.


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