updated 10/31/2007 4:34:14 PM ET 2007-10-31T20:34:14

Presidents like to deliver good news in times of disaster. Yet three Southeastern governors heading to Washington to lobby for water rights amid a potentially catastrophic drought are likely to put the Bush administration on the spot.

If the administration decides to bolster Georgia's drinking supply, Alabama and Florida may claim it's crippling their economies to satisfy uncontrolled growth around Atlanta. If it continues releasing water downstream to Alabama and Florida, Georgia could argue that one of the nation's largest cities is being hung out to dry.

Making matters worse for President Bush is the fact that all three states have Republican governors whose reputations could rise or fall based on their handling of the crisis.

"It does put him into a bind," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga. "I think there's some give and take on everybody's part, and I think the president is the only one that can sit down with these three governors and say, 'Look guys, we got a problem. ... We're all looking bad.'"

Leaders from the states are scheduled to meet Thursday to try to hash out a temporary arrangement and later talk with Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who was sent to the region last week by Bush.

In an interview Tuesday, Kempthorne said the administration has not made any decisions on the dispute, which dates back to the late 1980s.

"If it were easy it would have been solved 18 years ago," Kempthorne said. "There have been good-faith efforts, but there's also been millions of dollars spent in the courts and we do not have a solution. ... There needs to be something where everyone says we gained here while we know we may have had to give up something else."

At issue is how much water the Army Corps of Engineers should capture in federal reservoirs near the head of two river basins in north Georgia that flow south into Florida and Alabama.

The fast-growing Atlanta region relies on the lakes for drinking water. But power plants in Florida and Alabama depend on healthy flows in the rivers, as do farms, commercial fisheries, industrial users and municipalities. The corps also is required to release adequate flows to ensure habitats for several species of mussels and sturgeon that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Georgia officials have argued that the corps is turning a blind eye to a potential humanitarian crisis in Atlanta by ignoring warnings that the city's main water source, Lake Lanier, could have just a few months worth of water remaining. The state sued the corps earlier this month, arguing that Georgia has sacrificed more than other states and that the federal government is putting mussels before people.

That posture that riled neighboring leaders, who said it ignored their needs.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley accused Georgia last week of "watering their lawns and flowers" all summer and expecting Washington to "bail them out." Florida Gov. Charlie Crist wrote Bush to say his state was "unwilling to allow the unrealistic demands of one region to further compromise the downstream communities."

At a speech in Montgomery on Tuesday, Riley held up a poster-size map of Alabama and Georgia and showed that the exceptional drought area in Alabama is much larger than in Georgia. He said the state's economic prosperity was at stake.

"This is about whether Alabama gets its fair share and whether we are going to have to lay off people in Alabama," he said.

The Interior Department and the corps are now exploring options for adjusting water releases, trying to determine how they might capture more water in the lakes while continuing to meet the demands downstream. But each state already accuses the corps of ignoring its interests, so any significant change likely would be met with further litigation.

"It's only going to antagonize somebody," said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. "You have three Republican governors. The delegations in Congress of these states are predominantly Republican, so it's not easy politically. There's really no easy way out of it."

According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, almost a third of the Southeast is covered by an exceptional drought, the worst category.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments