Southeastern Governors to Devise Drought Strategy

Governors of Georgia, Alabama and Florida meet with Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne to discuss allocating water resources in the wake of the drought. The three states and the federal government agree to set up a working group to develop an emergency drought strategy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

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And I'm John Ydstie.

There's been a positive development in efforts to alleviate the water shortage afflicting Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Over the weekend it rained. That allowed Georgia to increase the flow of water south from the Flint River into Florida. That might have been the most significant announcement to come out of yesterday's regional water meeting in Tallahassee.

NPR's Greg Allen reports governors of the three states got together and agreed to keep on meeting.

GREG ALLEN: It's a dispute that's been going on now for nearly 18 years. Because of its burgeoning growth, Atlanta's water needs have grown steadily. The two states downstream, Alabama and Florida, first sued, and then agreed to try to negotiate a solution.

Yesterday, Florida's Governor Charlie Crist hosted a meeting in Tallahassee that brought together Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, Alabama's Bob Riley.

When it was over, Kempthorne said the three states and the federal government had agreed to set up a working group to develop an emergency drought strategy.

Secretary DIRK KEMPTHORNE (U.S. Department of Interior): A lot of very dedicated, talented people are all going to work together on this. It is now on our watch and we believe that we can find a solution.

ALLEN: This year, the long-simmering dispute became a crisis when the drought in the southeast threatened to turn one of Atlanta's main reservoirs - Lake Lanier - into a puddle.

Last month, the Army Corps of Engineers allowed Georgia to reduce by five percent the amount of water released downstream. That reduction was met by dismay down river, especially in communities along Florida's Apalachicola Bay. The reduced flow poses a threat to endangered species of fish and mussels. And it's already had a negative impact on the oyster and fishing industries.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist said yesterday that the Army Corps of Engineers has agreed not to seek additional reductions in flow while the new federal state group does its work.

Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Florida, Republican): I'm concerned about the spawning season along the Apalachicola River and bay, and appreciate the consensus on that point. General, thank you very much.

ALLEN: In the past, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue has described the dispute as, quote, "choosing between mussels and drinking water for children." Yesterday in Tallahassee, he was a little more conciliatory. But he said there's nothing in the agreement to set up a working a group that prevents Georgia from seeking additional reductions in water releases if they're needed.

Governor SONNY PERDUE (Georgia, Republican) They understand the challenges that we have throughout this system, and I'm persuaded that they don't want four million people in Atlanta to give out(ph) their drinking water either, and that they will take the steps for that not to happen.

ALLEN: In Florida, the sniping has taken aim at Georgia's water conservation efforts, which went into effect just last month and which called for a modest 10 percent reduction in use. Florida's Environmental Secretary Michael Sole says compare that to South Florida.

Secretary MICHAEL SOLE (Florida Department of Environmental Protection): We've got conservation strategies on our agricultural community, that's at 45 percent conservation. Palm Beach County has achieved 28 percent conservation on their municipal and industrial consumption.

ALLEN: The negotiations over an emergency drought plan for the Southeast now moved to Washington. They're expected to be complete by March 15th.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Tallahassee.

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