States reach temporary water solution

ATLANTA - A regional water meeting this week gave Georgia breathing room to figure out ways to work out its water crisis, but it also offered a surprising glimmer of hope that an exhausting tri-state water fight could be nearing an end.

The Washington meeting between the leaders of Georgia, Alabama and Florida hashed out a temporary solution for the three states mired in a tug-of-war over water rights. But the conciliatory tone between the governors was a signal the states could be closer to ending a legal battle that has raged over the better part of two decades.

""They're not going to solve years of problems in a couple of two hour sessions,' said Maj. Daren Payne of the Army Corps of Engineers. ""But it's a huge step forward.'

Even Gov. Sonny Perdue, an outspoken player in the water rivalry, called the conversation ""pleasant to some degree.

""We had frankly, some very frank and candid discussions,' he told Atlanta's WSB radio Friday. ""Not 100 percent agreement, but we did come away with an agreement that it is really up to the three states, the three governors, to resolve this.'

The three states have been locked in a legal battle over water rights since 1990. An epic drought that plunged almost a third of the Southeast into an extreme or exceptional drought - the worst categories - has intensified the tri-state fight.

Perdue has lobbied the corps, which manages regional water supplies, to send less of the water stored in north Georgia reservoirs downstream to Florida and Alabama. The two states have fought back, saying healthy water flows are needed to fuel power plants and sustain farms, fisheries and two federally protected mussel species.

A short-term agreement reached Thursday would bolster Atlanta's drinking supply by reducing by about 16 percent the amount of water flowing downstream from Lake Lanier, the north Georgia reservoir that supplies much of the metro area with water daily.

Although Georgia officials could not say how many more days of drinking water the move would save, it's likely to boost an earlier forecast that said less than 80 days of stored water remains in Lake Lanier. (The corps disputes the figure, contending there are many more months of water remaining below the lake's storage pool).

The tentative truce was not a complete victory for Georgia. The corps also agreed to delay until December its normal policy of cutting flows from Lake Allatoona into Alabama. And Alabama Gov. Bob Riley's office said the corps will ask a suburban Atlanta water authority to reduce its water withdrawals.

There's no doubt the compromise is delicate, and neither Georgia or Alabama have signaled plans to drop lawsuits against the corps. Still, some environmentalists are cautiously optimistic about the summit's outcome