Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne acknowledged Saturday that White House-brokered water negotiations among Alabama, Florida and Georgia have failed.
Without an agreement, the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies will begin implementing a water-sharing plan of their own, Kempthorne said in a letter to the governors.
"Regrettably, it will necessarily be a solution being directed to the states instead of our much hoped for solution coming from the states," he wrote in the letter, released Saturday.
Kempthorne said the talks, which began last fall, yielded more progress in three months than at any time during the last 18 years.
But he said the negotiators could not reach a comprehensive agreement and called it "unfortunate" that the states are moving forward with ongoing litigation.
"It is our hope that developments in the courts will not frustrate further progress in resolving the remaining technical issues we face together," he said.
Drought intensifies tensions
The three states have been feuding for nearly two decades over water rights in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basins, which run south through Georgia into Alabama and the Florida panhandle.
Georgia is fighting to hold back more water in federal reservoirs around Atlanta to serve its growing population.
Florida and Alabama argue that Georgia hasn't adequately planned for growth. The extra withdrawals, they argue, would damage the environment and dry up river flows into their states that support smaller municipalities, power plants, commercial fisheries and industrial users like paper mills.
With a record drought creating a critical water shortage last fall, President Bush dispatched Kempthorne to try to settle the dispute.
But the talks appeared doomed from the start, with Florida almost immediately backing away from an initial agreement to allow Georgia to temporarily hold back more water in Lake Lanier outside Atlanta as the governors worked toward a longer-term pact by Feb. 15.
Then Georgia lost a major court ruling in a case that raised questions about whether the federal government can allocate the state more water from the river basins without first getting approval from Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court.
Missed deadlines, talks unravel
After a series of meetings, the governors missed the Feb. 15 deadline but said they would continue talking until March 1.
The talks appeared to unravel further in recent days, with Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue saying the water problems facing Florida and Alabama are not as critical as Georgia's and accusing the other states of approaching the talks without the same urgency as Georgia.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley responded by saying that prospects for a negotiated solution were "indeed dim" if Perdue could not acknowledge that Georgia's needs are no more critical than those of the other states.
Against that backdrop, Georgia officials said Saturday they will not make a severe drought declaration for the lower Flint River Basin in the southwest part of the state.