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South's water war still a stalemate

WASHINGTON — Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue's public invitation to meet with his counterparts in Alabama and Florida on disputed water rights contained a telling detail about their increasingly frosty relations.

Perdue offered his fellow governors 40 potential dates for a meeting between August and November. Why so many?

Why can't he, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist — all Republicans who call themselves friends — work out the dates of a meeting without using press releases and news conferences to show how ready they are to negotiate?

"I think it's gamesmanship. They're all sort of strutting around in each of their own barnyards," said Mark Crisp, a water consultant who has worked on behalf of utilities in the dispute. "I think it's evolved into more of a personality clash, not political because they are all three Republicans, and certainly not technical, because the technical aspects of this case are not rocket science."

Nearly everyone involved in the dispute says there is plenty of water to go around in the river systems the states have been fighting over for 20 years. The governors themselves say there shouldn't be a need for continued litigation that has already cost the states millions of dollars.

"It goes back a long ways. There are deep-seated ill feelings," Crisp said.

Yet the states remain in a stalemate, and a landmark court ruling last month may have only hardened their divisions. As of Friday, the governors had not talked directly about water sharing since a federal judge decided in July that Georgia has almost no legal rights to Lake Lanier, metro Atlanta's main water source.

All three governors are on their way out. Perdue and Riley are heading into the final year of their eight years in office, prevented by term limits from running again. Crist is forgoing another term to run for Senate.

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The recent court decision clarified the legal landscape and set a firm deadline for any settlement: Three years from now. But it also may have made negotiations even more sticky.

Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that Georgia has been illegally tapping Lanier, a massive federal reservoir in north Georgia. The lake currently provides drinking water to more than 3 million people, and the state was banking on using it even more to accommodate growth. Florida and Alabama had challenged the withdrawals, saying they were drying up river flow into their states.

Acknowledging that the decision could have draconian consequences, Magnuson said Georgia could continue using the lake for three years. But most withdrawals must end at that time if the states can't push an agreement through Congress.

Perdue so far appears unwilling to accept the decision, saying he will challenge it through appeal and "fight to the death" for Georgia's water rights.

For Riley and Crist, the decision offers little incentive to make concessions and plenty of reason to sit back and see what Georgia will offer.

With a three-year deadline looming, Georgia would be taking a significant risk if it waits and hopes the case is reversed without simultaneously seeking a settlement.

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Already, Democrats are criticizing Perdue for leaving the state in a bind.

"His attempts at using the courts have failed at every level and done nothing but isolate our neighbors to the west and south," said David Poythress, a Democrat and former Georgia National Guard commander running for governor.

Crisp said Georgia leaders are under the gun because they have "painted themselves in a corner that's going to be tremendously difficult to get out of."

He said Perdue surely feels he must protect Georgia's interests, but that he probably also has an eye on his legacy.

"When they leave office, they want to leave the state in a better position than when they took over, and I think at this point Gov. Perdue is looking at the real possibility that his only legacy, regardless of what's happened over the past eight years, is that he lost" the water wars, Crisp said. "I don't know what kind of guidance he's been provided by his legal or policy staff, but the future of Georgia is in his hands right now."

South's water war still a stalemate 08/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 11:17pm]
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