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Despite Landmark Ruling, Water Wars Will Likely Continue

The battle over water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system will likely continue on several fronts despite a federal judge's monumental decision last week in a consolidated legal case involving the rivers.

Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been fighting in federal court since 1990 over water from the rivers. Alabama and Georgia want water for cities, utilities and agriculture while Florida wants water for fish and wildlife in the Apalachicola River and the seafood industry in Apalachicola Bay.

U.S. District Judge Paul A. Magnuson last week ruled that Georgia and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been illegally taking water from Lake Lanier, the huge federal reservoir north of Atlanta. The judge gave Congress three years to approve water use before water would be shut off for most of those Atlanta-area cities.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said the ruling created an opportunity for the states to work on an agreement outside of the court system. But repeated queries to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection provided no answer as to whether contact had occurred.

DEP Secretary Michael Sole said he expects the issue to play out on several fronts, including talks among the states and continuing litigation in the federal court system.

"Governor Crist has always identified that he was wiling to get together and has said so on numerous occasions," Sole said. "I'm confident communications will begin in short order."

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue vowed last week to appeal the ruling. He also met this week with business leaders and local officials to fashion a response to the ruling.

Perdue met briefly with Alabama Gov. Bob Riley last weekend during a meeting of national governors. Perdue characterized the encounter as a conversation “that briefly touched on the ruling -- but nothing substantive," said Bert Brantley, a spokesman for the Georgia governor.

In Apalachicola, Mayor Van Johnson this week wrote to President Obama asking him to immediately increase water flowing into the Apalachicola River from Georgia in light of the ruling.

"A court has ruled it (Atlanta-area water use) is unlawful,” Johnson said.

"Although it is good for Atlanta to have the three years to adjust to it, the Apalachicola River may not be able to make it for three years,” explained Apalachicola City Attorney Patrick Floyd.

Meanwhile, the judge this week filed a motion stating that the case will proceed into a second phase of litigation. That phase is primarily a review of claims that the Corps of Engineers has either released too much water or not enough water to protect threatened and endangered mussels along the Apalachicola River.

And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proceeding with an update of its water control manual for the ACF system. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Allen Boyd, both Florida Democrats, want a broader study of the river system and want the Corps to say how much that study would cost.

Boyd said he would be talking with Sole in the coming days and weeks about what should happen next. An aide to Nelson said it's up to the governors to work something out.

Crist gave no indication this week what he thinks should happen next.

"We know how important water is to us," Crist told reporters. "We have been blessed in Florida to have an awful lot of water, particularly this season. But that ruling is going to help us out that much more. And I'm very happy about it."

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