Video: Drought-stricken governors meet

updated 11/1/2007 5:04:03 PM ET 2007-11-01T21:04:03

The Army Corps of Engineers would hold back more water in Georgia lakes as the governors of drought-stricken Georgia, Florida and Alabama work toward a water-sharing agreement, under a plan brokered by the Bush administration.

The proposal was announced Thursday after the governors of the three states met with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and other administration officials.

The decision to reduce river flows into Florida and Alabama during an extreme drought still must win approval from the federal Fish and Wildlife Service because of the potential impact on several protected species of mussels and sturgeon that live downstream. Officials said the agency would issue its biological opinion on the change within two weeks.

"I'm grateful for the relief," said Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who has been critical of federal officials for allowing a greater flow from Lake Lanier, Atlanta's main water supply, than he thinks is justified.

Perdue and other Georgia leaders themselves have been criticized by environmentalists who say the water crisis is largely the fault of Atlanta's uncontrolled sprawl and a resulting demand for more resources.

Leaders from Alabama and Georgia said they made progress in their bitter feud over water rights by isolating areas of disagreement before an afternoon meeting with top Bush administration officials.

All four senators and both governors from the states participated in the morning meeting, which aides described as tense. The lawmakers said the session was productive, even though leaders from Florida, which also is embroiled in the dispute, did not attend.

They also sought to temper expectations that the meetings would yield a breakthrough in the yearslong water wars.

"There are lots of issues and to expect that there will be one simple answer at one meeting is beyond possibility," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican.

Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been locked in a legal battle over water rights for the better part of two decades. But the fight has intensified in recent weeks as a record drought has taken over much of the region. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, almost a third of the Southeast is covered by an exceptional drought, the worst category.

The dispute centers on how much water the Corps of Engineers holds back 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 species protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Georgia officials have argued that the corps is ignoring a potential crisis in Atlanta because Lake Lanier could have just a few months' worth of water remaining. The state sued the corps last month, arguing that Georgia has sacrificed more than other states and that the federal government is putting endangered species before people.

But Alabama and Florida leaders accuse Georgia of failing to plan for growth. They say the water being released is already not enough to meet their states' needs and that further reducing it could cripple their economies.

"The water in Lake Lanier is not Georgia's water," Alabama Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby wrote in a letter to President Bush this week. "These are federal lakes and the water should be allowed to fairly flow all along the river."

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