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Feds OK drought deal letting Georgia keep more water

  • Story Highlights
  • Fish and Wildlife Service: Plan has limited effect on mussels, sturgeon downstream
  • Plan gradually cuts amount of water released from dam in Chattahoochee, Florida
  • Plan is only temporary, until the Southeast gets some much-needed rain
  • U.S. official: Georgia, Florida, Alabama governors also want long-term solution
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Federal biologists said Friday they had signed off on a plan aimed at providing relief to the drought-parched Southeast, under which more water will be retained in Georgia instead of being released into Florida.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expedited its study of an interim drought plan submitted two weeks ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and concluded that freshwater mussels and sturgeon -- kept alive by water from Georgia's Chattahoochee watershed under federal law -- will not be placed in jeopardy under the plan.

However, there will be some effects, and some members of the species probably will die, Sam Hamilton, Southeast regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporters.

Under the plan, the amount of water released from the Jim Woodruff Dam in Chattahoochee, Florida, will be gradually decreased. That process had already begun Friday, said Brig. Gen. Joseph Schroedel, South Atlantic Division commander for the Corps of Engineers. A similar plan will be put into effect on the Alabama River, at a point south of Montgomery, Alabama, officials said.

Last 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 -- the main source of Atlanta's water -- and other reservoirs. He blasted what he said were "silly rules," noting that even if Georgia gets rain, it cannot conserve water because it must release 3.2 billion gallons a day downstream.

Alabama, Georgia and Florida have been wrangling over water usage from two river basins -- the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) and the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) -- for years. Meanwhile, the population of metropolitan Atlanta has doubled to more than 5 million since 1980. Lake Lanier is at the headwaters of the ACF system, so cutting the flow of water from the Woodruff Dam will mean less water will need to be released from Lake Lanier. See why the three states are struggling over the water »

Rainfall in north Georgia, including the Atlanta metropolitan area, is more than a foot below normal levels for this time of year, following a series of drier-than-normal years. Georgia has imposed a mandatory ban on outdoor water use by homeowners in the region.

Two weeks ago, Perdue met with federal officials, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to discuss a drought plan, and the plan approved Friday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was announced. In light of the negotiations, Perdue has dropped his lawsuit against the corps.

Florida's governor has voiced some concerns about the recommendations from the November 1 meeting. Jim Connaughton, chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality, told reporters Friday that negotiations continue to work through some of the issues facing Florida, but some concerns, "at least with respect to the near term," have been addressed.

Asked whether he thinks Crist would sue over the matter, Connaughton said governors of the three states have committed to finding a solution for future years if the drought persists.

The governors will meet December 11 and 12 in Tallahassee, Florida, to continue negotiations, U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said Friday. "We're in an extreme situation ... but you see, at this point, some two weeks after sitting down and going through a number of these things, some real progress has been made."

The plan also provides for increasing water storage, officials said. "If the corps does not hold back some water now, and if extreme drought conditions continue, it is possible there may not be enough water in storage next summer to meet the needs of users," the corps said in a statement.

In signing off on the drought plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only examined possible effects on species listed on the federal endangered list, Hamilton said, so the revised plan's effect on oysters, shrimp and other species in Florida's Apalachicola Bay is unknown, although it will be studied. Connaughton, however, noted that the plan is only temporary, until the Southeast receives some much-needed rain. See which parts of U.S. face worst drought »

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Crist, for his part, said in a written statement Friday that the state "will continue to focus on the needs of the people who depend on a healthy Apalachicola Bay." He said that while he is "disappointed" that Georgia's initial request to reduce releases from Woodruff Dam was extended, the corps has promised Florida it will regularly evaluate the environmental effects on the bay.

Schroedel disputed reports that have said Lake Lanier only has a finite number of days left for Atlanta's water supply, saying the lake has not reached its record low. "It doesn't look that pretty, but there's still a lot of water there," he said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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