A water-conservation measure that fishermen said would devastate the Florida Panhandle's oyster industry has been put on hold, the governors of three drought-stricken Southeastern states said Monday as they pledged to speed up talks on sharing water during scarcities.
The Bush administration last month had brokered a plan to reduce flows into the Apalachicola River, which feeds a major oyster breeding ground in Florida. The short-term effort to bolster Atlanta's drinking supply drew opposition from oystermen and environmentalists who said it would further damage species already hard hit by one of the region's worst droughts in years.
The three governors — Florida's Charlie Crist, Georgia's Sonny Perdue and Alabama's Bob Riley — and the federal government agreed not to reduce, for now, the minimum amount of water that will flow into Apalachicola Bay.
The governors also agreed that their staffs will continue to work together to come up with a plan for doling out the region's water by March 15, faster than had been expected. The interim agreement on flow levels had been set to expire June 1.
Oystermen ‘cautiously optimistic’
The news was good for oystermen along the Panhandle Gulf Coast, who had feared they would be stuck with spring flows too low to sustain the spawning season. Apalachicola Bay produces about 1 in 10 of the nations' oysters.
"We're cautiously optimistic," said Kevin Begos, the director of the Franklin County Oyster & Seafood Task Force.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, who also participated, said he was pleased the governors have agreed to try to end the states' nearly two decades of disagreement on sharing water as early as this spring.
"This was real, it was meaningful," Kempthorne said. "The atmosphere today reinvigorates me that we can get this done."
One of the worst droughts in years in the Southeast has created a sense of urgency, all three governors acknowledged.
"We're talking about solving something we've been working on for 18 years within the next two months," Riley said.
Atlanta a big user basin's water
The fast-growing Atlanta area gets most of its water from Lake Lanier, at the head of the river basin shared by the states. Drawing more water from the lake would mean less for downstream uses in Florida and in Alabama, where the water is used by a nuclear plant.
In early December, authorities said there was less than four months of available water left in Lake Lanier. Perdue said recent reductions in flow that Florida opposed have aided in raising the lake's level.
"The flow reductions have helped; the ability to recover some of the rainfall and store that has helped," Perdue said. "But we've got to have a protocol that determines how we're going to share in times of scarcity, and that's what we're all trying to figure out."
Crist hinted that Georgia might need to increase its conservation — noting Florida has made moves to cut use since the drought began.
"We all share the difficulties of the current drought — all three of our states must provide for comprehensive water conservation efforts," Crist said.
The meeting also follows a major agreement signed last week that will allow seven Western states to conserve and share Colorado River water, ending a divisive battle among those states.