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Florida backs away from water rights truce

The state of Florida on Friday backed away from a temporary truce brokered by the Bush administration to settle a long-standing water war, heightened by drought, between Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The state of Florida on Friday backed away from a temporary truce brokered by the Bush administration to help settle a long-standing water war, now heightened by an ongoing drought, involving Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

In a letter to federal officials, Florida’s environmental protection chief said the state opposes an arrangement announced in Washington last week under which the Army Corps of Engineers would cut river flows into Florida and Alabama in order to capture more water for Georgia.

The river reductions would cause a “catastrophic collapse of the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay” and “displace the entire economy of the Bay region,” wrote Michael Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. He was referring to Gulf coast waters off northwest Florida.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist raised no such objections at a press conference in Washington last week, where Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced that the cuts would be implemented as the governors worked toward completing a longer-term pact by Feb. 15.

“I think that what we had today was a great discussion, a great understanding,” Crist said at the news conference.

But he has since come under heavy criticism locally.

“I think what Crist is starting to hear is that in the past the environmentalists were taking the lead on this, but now you have a really broad coalition — the chamber of commerce is speaking out, and Realtors, recreational fishermen, people in the restaurant industry,” said Kevin Begos, executive director of a Franklin County, Fla., task force that represents oyster and seafood interests. “They’re all saying these flow cuts ... would put a lot of people out of jobs.”

Eric Eikenberg, Crist’s deputy chief of staff, said the state reached its decision after taking a closer look at the proposal.

Even though the planned flow reductions were just one part of what others saw as a fragile compromise, he said he did not think Florida’s opposition would undercut negotiations among the states.

Eikenberg declined to say whether Florida would sue to stop the plan.

The state won’t decide its next move, he said, until after the federal Fish and Wildlife Service issues an opinion next week on whether the proposal would violate the Endangered Species Act by jeopardizing several protected species of mussels and sturgeon.

But he acknowledged that legal action is an option, and the three states have generally shown a readiness to take their water qualms to court over the past two decades.