By Herman Wang
WASHINGTON -- The Army Corps of Engineers agreed Thursday to retain more water in Georgia's Lake Lanier to provide temporary relief to drought-stricken residents in the state, while the Georgia, Alabama and Florida governors continue to negotiate a long-term water management plan.
The governors said they plan to meet Dec. 12 in Tallahassee, Fla., in hopes of reaching a compromise agreement by Feb. 15 on sharing water from two river basins that flow through the states.
"These are shared problems, and they're going to require shared solutions," Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said at a news conference in Washington after meeting with the Alabama and Florida governors, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and other administration officials.
"I'm grateful for the relief, and I look forward to engaging my neighbor governors," Gov. Perdue said.
The corps' decision to reduce flows in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin, from 5,000 cubic feet per second to 4,200, still must be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency has pledged to render its decision in two weeks.
The corps has been releasing water from Lake Lanier in North Georgia, which feeds that river basin, to follow Endangered Species Act requirements in protecting endangered mussels and sturgeon downstream in Florida. The river basin flows along the Georgia-Alabama border into Florida.
Georgia has criticized the outflows as excessive, as its officials have estimated metro Atlanta, which draws its drinking water from Lake Lanier, may have as little as two months' supply left.
Environmentalists and Alabama and Florida officials have countered that Georgia has exacerbated its water problems through uncontrolled development. Alabama officials also have been insistent that the water flow be sufficient to service Farley Nuclear Power Plant.
Georgia and Alabama also have fought over the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basin, which flows mostly in Alabama.
Despite their previous harsh words for each other, the Republican governors said Thursday they are committed to cooperating on their water plan. The three states have been battling over water rights in the two river basins for at least 18 years, with the fight escalating this year as extreme drought conditions persist.
"As long as there is flexibility and ... camaraderie, there's no reason we can't do this," Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said.
"It's wonderful when three governors have the opportunity to get together," Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said, though he emphasized that farms, industrial users and fisheries -- not just Atlanta residents -- need adequate water flow. "I'm confident and optimistic we will find a solution."
None of the governors nor Secretary Kempthorne would say what would happen if an agreement is not reached and Lake Lanier runs dry.
"You can't have a contingency plan for running out of water for 4 million-plus people" in Atlanta, Gov. Perdue said. "The frank answer is, if we don't get more rain, we're looking at stricter measures that are going to have to be taken."
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