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3 southern states inch toward compromise on water demands

WASHINGTON — The governors of Alabama, Florida and Georgia took tenuous steps Thursday toward a resolution in an acrimonious, nearly two-decade-long water feud.

For now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will decrease the flow of water from north Georgia lakes downstream into the two river basins the three states share. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will examine the corps' interim plan and weigh in on the impact on several rare species of mussels and sturgeon that live downstream and need the extra water to thrive.

"These are shared problems and they are going to require shared solutions," Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said after Thursday's meeting. "If there are other measures needed, we will be at the table together to discuss other measures going forward."

Perdue's tone Thursday was decidedly more conciliatory than the position he struck in recent weeks, when the governors of the three drought-plagued states waged a public battle for water and even appealed to President Bush to intervene.

Perdue and Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama participated in a frank, and at times tense, meeting with their respective senators Thursday morning. Later they hashed out their differences in a sit-down with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairman James Connaughton, and the commander of the Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp.

The possibility of compromise was welcomed news for all three states.

"Sometimes we try to make these negotiations too complex," Riley said. "... No one in Alabama wants to deprive the state of Georgia or Atlanta of their drinking water, but the thing we have to do is make sure all the reservoirs are treated equally."

Alabama, Florida and Georgia have remained deadlocked in a battle over the rights to the two river basins. In recent weeks, worries over the impact of Atlanta's rapid growth on the region's water supplies, coupled with concerns that parts of the South will run out of water in less than 90 days because of the drought, sparked a desperate scramble to stake a claim on water resources.

The three states' governors recently asked Bush to help resolve the dispute. Kempthorne and Connaughton were dispatched last week to Alabama and Georgia to meet with those states' governors and spoke with Florida's governor by phone.

The three states also turned up the pressure on the corps to review decades-old water control plans that regulate the release of water from the river basins' north Georgia reservoirs downstream to Alabama and Florida. The states rely heavily on these sources to provide drinking water, hydropower and to irrigate crops.

All parties agree that the corps' current plans are inadequate and that Thursday's talks won't end the bickering over water rights. Crist has invited the governors to Tallahassee for further talks next month, and a more in-depth resolution is expected by February.

It is hoped that this will keep the states out of court. All three states have federal river basin lawsuits pending.

The South has historically drawn on a wealth of water resources, but this is the first time in a century that the region has faced such a critical drought. Parts of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia have all been particularly hard hit by drought, which has also destroyed crops in Idaho and sparked wildfires in California.

Last week, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley asked residents to cut their water use in half and told the House Agriculture Committee that the drought would have long-lasting, devastating effects on Southern farmers. Last week's rain brought needed relief to much of Kentucky, but other parts of the South are still feeling the drought's effects.

The tri-state water wars turned bitter when Georgia's governor and several members of the state's congressional delegation accused Florida officials of caring more about endangered sturgeon and mussel species than the parched citizens of Atlanta. The extra water needed to keep the rare Gulf sturgeon and purple bankclimber and fat threeridge mussels alive flows downstream from Lake Lanier, a quickly shrinking water source just outside of Atlanta.

Similarly, Georgia contends that it can't afford to release more water downstream from Lake Allatoona in the Atlanta metro area — a water source also used by a nuclear power plant in southern Alabama.

Florida's and Alabama's governors and lawmakers, as well as environmental advocates, take issue with Georgia's stance. Years of unchecked growth in Atlanta, they say, are partly to blame for the region's water woes.

(Lesley Clark contributed to this report.)