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Water Wars May Take New Direction

With a new federal administration , a potentially landmark court ruling pending and spring rains swelling the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, Florida could be poised for greater cooperation with Georgia and Alabama in distributing the water they share.

“Nothing is in the way for the states to come together,” said Florida Department of Environment Protection Secretary Michael W. Sole.

On Monday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended drought operations and began to release a greater flow of water – 19,000 cubic feet per second – from the Jim Woodruff Dam on the Florida-Georgia state line downstream to the Apalachicola River. Sole had repeatedly asked Col. Byron Jorns, the Corps District Commander, to “correct an erroneous Corps staff interpretation” of the operations plan that kept more water in Georgia’s Lake Lanier, which Atlanta is using for drinking water.

“Unfortunately,” said Sole, “because of some questionable decisions on behalf of the Corps of Engineers, they continued to be in the drought system in their minds and continued to reduce the amount of water coming to Florida’s Apalachicola River – even though they were technically out of drought as early as March. We continue to see these types of decisions, which I think frustrate the states as we move forward. And I’m hopeful that under the new administration, we can actually embrace a much better collegial way of managing the system.”

So does Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who as a U.S. senator from Colorado helped broker a multi-state water compact in the West.

Salazar said last week he would not intervene in the tri-state battle over the ACF system that has raged since 1990. But he encouraged the three states, whose governors failed to agree in meetings brokered in 2007 and 2008 by former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, to “come together and figure out a way forward.”

Sole wrote to ACF stakeholders Wednesday, citing a letter that Gov. Charlie Crist sent to Salazar after they toured the Everglades together on May 28. Crist asked the Department of the Interior to “engage in meaningful and independent participation as the three states look to an equitable sharing of this precious resource.” Since the reservoirs at the crux of the dispute are managed by the federal government, said Sole, no solution can ensure equity without federal participation.

“Without question, I think it is incumbent upon the states to identify solutions,” said Sole. “But I think the federal government has a key role as well.”

Crist also asked Salazar for a “comprehensive review of the cumulative downstream effects that have occurred to threatened and endangered species, as well as the environment on which they depend.”

The three states have battled for years over the river basin. Atlanta's use of the lake at the headwaters of the system as a source of drinking water has decreased the flow of water through the river system as it becomes the Apalachicola River and flows into the Gulf. That decrease has been particularly marked as Atlanta has grown over the decades, and as the region has faced droughts.

Alabama has pushed for additional water as a means for driving an electric power plant. Florida's argument primarily has had to do with the health of Apalachicola Bay, a prime shellfishing ground. Those shellfish need a certain level of salinity that gets too high when the amount of fresh water feeding the bay slows. Also an issue has been the health of a couple of unique species – the fat threeridge mussel, and the purple bankclimber mussel – whose habitat is the Apalachicola River, and whose survival depends on adequate amounts of water flowing through the river.

Florida’s legislative delegation also has been pushing for independent research to convince the Corps of Engineers that low flows will threaten the commercial fishing industry in the Apalachicola Bay, which generates $205 million in regional economic impact, and 1,300 families of third- and fourth-generation oystermen.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, both Florida Democrats, have reintroduced a bill in Congress that would authorize a National Research Council study to help the states and the Corps to share the ACF system.

“Finding an equitable resolution to the tri-state water conflict is critical to health of the Apalachicola River and Bay and many North Florida communities,” said Boyd. “And this resolution will only come from collaboration and cooperation on the local, state, and federal levels.”

Boyd also noted that President Barack Obama endorsed Florida’s call for a study of the ACF system during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson is expected to rule this summer on whether Atlanta may continue to rely on Lake Lanier as its primary source of drinking water.

Magnuson heard arguments from the three states on May 11. Florida and Alabama contended that the three functions of Lanier are river navigation, flood control and hydropower. Georgia argued that Congress authorized the lake as a water supply six decades ago.

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