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Monday, December 17, 2007

Southeast governors to discuss ACF river basin allocation

Daniel Cusick
December 17, 2007

The governors of Florida, Georgia and Alabama today hope to lay the groundwork for a long-term, water-sharing agreement for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which has emerged in recent months as the prize in a water war spurred by the Southeast's record drought.

In meetings scheduled in Tallahassee, Fla., Gov. Charlie Crist will try to convince fellow Republican Govs. Sonny Perdue of Georgia and Bob Riley of Alabama that Florida cannot abide by an ACF flow regime that would essentially rob the state's Apalachicola Bay of necessary fresh water.

Georgia, meanwhile, will stress the growing water supply needs of burgeoning Atlanta, which draws water from an major upstate reservoir on the Chattahoochee River, while Alabama will maintain that the ACF basin must provide enough water to support that state's industrial and municipal users.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who hosted the three governors for negotiations on Nov. 1 in Washington, D.C., also will attend today's meeting, as will representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for managing three federally protected species in the Apalachicola River.

The Army Corps is responsible for managing flows along 900 miles of river corridor that drain 19,300 square miles of watershed from the north Georgia mountains to the Florida Panhandle. Disputes over water rights in the basin date back nearly 20 years, as the three states began to realize their water needs exceeded what the ACF basin could provide, particularly in drought years.

This year's drought has been among the worst ever in the Southeast, with rainfall across north Alabama, north and central Georgia, east Tennessee and the western Carolinas measuring half or less than half of normal accumulations.

Under an emergency operations plan implemented in November for the ACF basin, the Army Corps reduced water flows at a hydrodam on the Georgia-Florida border from 5,000 to 4,750 cubic feet per second, in part to allow for greater rainfall accumulation in upstate reservoirs.
The plan, approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service, could allow for even greater flow reductions at Woodruff Dam, but Florida has resisted the cuts, saying its commercial and recreational fishery in Apalachicola Bay is being harmed by the curtailment of fresh water. The bay already is suffering spikes in salinity because of the encroachment of seawater from the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in oyster die-offs and the loss of aquatic vegetation that provide critical habitat for fisheries.

The Fish and Wildlife Service last week signed off on a corps request to cut flows by another 250 cubic feet per second, prompting a protest letter from Florida Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole, who said the current and proposed cuts had "wrought compelling damage on Florida's highly sensitive aquatic resources."

Pat Robbins, a spokesman for the corps' district office in Mobile, Ala., said this morning that no further reductions in flow were made over the weekend and that the agency was assessing the positive effect of a 1.75-inch rain that fell over the southern reaches of the ACF basin on Saturday.

Sarah Williams, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said this morning that Crist will steer the conversation to address both the short- and long-term issues facing the river basin.

"We realize this is a unique situation, but we want to come up with a long-term plan so this doesn't happen again," Williams said.

The governors are scheduled to meet today from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. EST and will hold an afternoon press conference immediately afterward to share details of the talks.