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River basin stakeholders approve letter to governors

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY -- Meeting near the banks of the Flint River, more than 50 leaders of a group of tri-state river basin stakeholders agreed Thursday to send a letter to the governors of Alabama, Georgia and Florida to make them aware of their existence before the governors' water summit Tuesday in Montgomery, Ala.

That letter, which ACF Stakeholders members hope will be signal to the governors that their group comprising representatives of commercial, environmental and commercial interests in the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint rivers basin wants to have input into negotiations between the three states regarding the use of water from the river systems.

For years, Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been at odds over how much water metro Atlanta should pull from Lake Lanier to provide water to its residents, businesses and industries. The arguments got more contentious in recent years as a tenacious drought gripped the Southeast, causing Lanier to reach record low levels and resulting in arguments particularly between Georgia and Florida over water flow.

That pressure has lessened in recent months as unusually heavy rains in north Georgia have the waterways swollen and Lanier full. But the underlying problem continues and, for Georgia, the clock is ticking.

The inability to reach a solution resulted in a federal court case that in July went against Georgia. A federal judge ruled that much of metro Atlanta was not legally entitled to withdraw water from Lanier and gave Georgia three years to find an alternative source of water or for Congress to pass an act authorizing Atlanta to use it. The three states' congressional delegations met and sent the governors a letter urging them to find a solution. Earlier this week, the governors announced the meeting Tuesday in Alabama.

While the ACF Stakeholders, which includes representatives from industries such as Southern Co., Procter & Gamble and MillerCoors, could not take formal action on Thursday because of its bylaws, members said they hoped the governors would take into account their vested interests in the results of the talks and include them in discussions on how water can be adequately shared among the three states. Group members also urged better communications with the media about their work.

At Thursday's meeting, the members debated how best to make those in authority aware of their existence, goals and mission before Tuesday's meeting, which is viewed as a golden opportunity for substantive talks to begin on the water wars issue.

"We're trying to walk a middle line here that would communicate to the governors and officials that we are serious and we want to be engaged and have a dialogue," ACFS Chair Wilton Rooks said. "This group represents a new, viable voice and we want it to be heard."

The problem Thursday was that the group's bylaws require a second reading at a separate meeting before any vote can be taken on any issue deemed "substantive" rather than "administrative."

The group's next meeting is not expected to take place before February.

"I don't want them (the governors) to make a decision without the stakeholders' input," ACFS member Dan Tonsmeirer said. "If they do, I feel it would be a crosswise situation."

Member James Phillips urged the group to take a more gentle tone with those in power, saying the governors should be viewed as allies rather than the opponents.

"We're looking at the governors as opposition," Phillips said. "These guys will be out in one or two years and they'll want to leave a legacy that the tri-state water war was resolved on their watch. ... We want to work with them as allies."

After debate, the group agreed to allow Rooks to write the letter that would introduce the group to the governors and include the facts of Thursday's meeting. The group would then discuss and adopt a more formal statement signed by its leadership at its next meeting.