3 governors boycott hearing over southeastern water battle

Water continues to dwindle in this aerial photo taken in October 2007 over Falls Lake in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Water continues to dwindle in this aerial photo taken in October 2007 over Falls Lake in Raleigh, North Carolina. Travis Long / Raleigh News & Observer / MCT

WASHINGTON — The acrimonious tri-state water battle over the rights to two river basins shared by Alabama, Georgia and Florida took another turn Tuesday as lawmakers and governmental water experts testified before a House of Representatives subcommittee on the challenges in coming to a resolution.

Noticeably absent from the hearing were the governors of Georgia, Florida and Alabama, who'd been invited to attend.

Officials from the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies pointed out that similar battles over water are playing out nationally and internationally, and that in those cases government officials have had to re-examine how they manage water resources. In some cases that has meant investing in desalinization or imposing stricter conversation rules.

Brig. Gen. Joseph Schroedel of the Corps of Engineers said creating a Southeast regional water resource council might help defuse the infighting and ensure the states work together to address water-sharing issues.

"I frankly think everyone has recognized this is a huge problem we need to deal with now," he said. "There's probably a lot of water out there we aren't capturing."

The feud pits Florida's concerns about the impact on the fishing industry, preserving endangered species of mussels and sturgeon and the downstream effects of booming population growth in Atlanta against those of Georgia, which worries that the water Florida needs draws from dwindling sources such as Lake Lanier outside of Atlanta. Parts of middle and southern Georgia, such as Columbus, which sits near the Alabama border, also accuse Atlanta of poorly managing its water resources.

Robert Hunter, the commissioner of Atlanta's department of watershed management, said the area has aggressive conservation plans, but that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is releasing more water than necessary to downstream communities.

Alabama, meanwhile, contends that Georgia needs to loosen its hold on water from Lake Allatoona in the Atlanta metro area so that the state can replenish much-needed water supplies and continue running a nuclear power plant in the southern part of the state.

Though invited to attend Tuesday's congressional hearing, Govs. Bob Riley of Alabama, Sonny Perdue of Georgia and Charlie Crist of Florida were absent, signaling a decided shift away from the tone set this fall when officials pledged to work with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to try to find a resolution as quickly as possible. Those talks unraveled last month after it became clear that the governors wouldn't meet a March 1 deadline for a resolution.

"I'm very disappointed in the governors of these three states who declined our invitation to be here," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

The three governors, who later said pending drought lawsuits and legislative matters prevented them from speaking at the congressional hearing, have had an increasingly heated exchange over water rights.

Riley has chided Perdue for saying his state's needs outstrip those of Alabama and Florida. The Georgia General Assembly's attempt to claim a portion of Tennessee in order to gain access to the Tennessee River was roundly criticized by lawmakers in that state. Alabama, Florida and Georgia are now eagerly awaiting the results of river basin lawsuits pending in federal courts and the implementation of revised interim water operation plans from the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies.

"It is unfortunate that in parallel to our decision-making on interim and revised operations you will all be working through the federal courts," Kempthorne wrote in a letter to the governors. "It is our hope that developments in the courts will not frustrate further progress in resolving the remaining technical issues we face together."

Experts predict battles over water will continue to crop up in other regions as growing communities fight for dwindling resources.

"It will play out in a lot of different ways across the nation," said Mike Hayes, the director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. "You'll have agricultural producers battling it out with urban areas or other agricultural producers. It will make it hard to apply one solution in one place."