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Plea for Plan B in Southern drought saga

  • Story Highlights
  • Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been wrangling over water usage
  • Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has declared a water emergency in north Georgia
  • Revised plan on dealing with water shortage will be given to Fish and Wildlife
  • Fish and Wildlife should be done reviewing the plan in two weeks, official says

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Governors of three drought-ridden Southern states met with federal officials to address water usage issues for two river basins Thursday, as the Army Corps of Engineers is expected to present a plan meant to relieve regions dangerously low on water.

Earlier this month, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue declared a water supply emergency in north Georgia, and asked a court to require the Corps of Engineers to restrict water flows from Lake Lanier and other reservoirs.

Asked whether the litigation would continue in light of the revised Corps plan, Perdue said a determination has not yet been made, but added he would rather solve the issue through negotiations than through the courts.

"The current Corps of Engineers operating plan, with regard to the drought, is inadequate," said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who attended the meeting to examine the dispute involving Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

A revised plan, Kempthorne said, will be turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by midnight Thursday. Fish and Wildlife can take up to 135 days to review the plan but has pledged to get it done in 14 days, he said.

The plan adds flexibility to the existing Corps of Engineers operating procedure, said Gen. Robert Van Antwerp, Corps commander. "We will be looking at all needs, all users, and we want to create a balance," he said.

The recommendations call for gradually reducing the amount of water released from the Jim Woodruff Dam in Chattahoochee, Florida -- which would keep more water in Georgia -- while studying the effects at each step, Van Antwerp said. Also, they offer options for when rain does fall, including where to store water until reservoirs return to the proper level, he said.

"We want to be able to test the systems," he said. "We will go down through different stages so we can assess what's going on at each stage."

Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been wrangling over water usage from the two river basins -- the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa and the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint -- for years. Meanwhile, the population of metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia, has doubled to more than 4 million since 1980.

Water from the Chattahoochee watershed in Georgia cools major power plants in Florida and Alabama, and helps keep alive freshwater mussels and sturgeon protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The recommendations to be turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service include a biological assessment, Van Antwerp said.

Earlier this month, Perdue blasted what he called "silly rules," noting that even if the South gets much-needed rain, Georgia cannot by law conserve it, but must release 3.2 billion gallons a day downstream. Video Watch how low Georgia's main source of water is »

"You can't have a plan of contingency for running out of water for 4 million people," he said Thursday. "Those plans don't exist. ... You cannot wait until you get to the last drop in the barrel to begin a contingency plan."

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said, "No one in Alabama wants to deprive the state of Georgia or Atlanta of their drinking water."

But, he added, "we have to make sure all of the reservoirs are treated equally."

Kempthorne said, "We're fortunate that we have these three governors with their professionalism, their dedication, their skills and their camaraderie to sit down and to really tackle this. If it were easy, it would have been done 18 years ago. It won't be solved in 18 days."

The governors have committed to a permanent agreement by mid-February, he said, and plan to meet again in December. The Corps of Engineers will use the governors' agreement to craft an addendum to their operating procedure.

Perdue, Riley and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist were optimistic that an agreement would be reached.

"Failure is not an option," Riley said. "We are in the middle of the most severe drought we've ever had, and it's going to be incumbent on each one of us to put aside the geographic boundaries and do what's best for the region."

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Rainfall in north Georgia, which includes the Atlanta metropolitan area, is 16 inches below normal for this time of year. That follows a series of drier-than-normal years. Georgia has already imposed a mandatory ban on outdoor water use by homeowners in the region.

"I'm going to go back to Georgia and pray harder for rain," Perdue said. "The frank answer is, if we don't get rain, we're still looking at more measures in the future." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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