MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A tri-state southern water war that's been fought for nearly 20 years is moving to a new front this week. The governors of Georgia, Alabama and Florida are bringing their passionate arguments to Washington, D.C. Those states are among those gripped by severe drought and that has exacerbated the fight over shrinking water resources.

BLOCK: Georgia's governor says the Army Corps of Engineers must protect drinking water for people in Atlanta by reducing the flow from Lake Lanier to Florida and Alabama. The governors of Alabama and Florida say hold on, cutting back will threaten the electrical grid, commercial fishing and endangered species. Well, secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne is stepping in to mediate this dispute. He's meeting with the governors tomorrow. And he told me that the southeast should look west for guidance.

Secretary DIRK KEMPTHORNE (Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior): Take Colorado Basin where you have seven states including California, Arizona, Nevada. And they all share the water of the Colorado River. In December, I'll go out there and sign what is called a record of decision. But it is an agreement among those seven states that in a drought, if there is a shortage of water, how they will share that water and sacrifice together. And it's - therefore, the same sort of principle that we need to talk with these states down in the south.

BLOCK: So are you saying every one of these states is going to have to make do with less than they would want?

Sec. KEMPTHORNE: It's possible. We want everyone to be able to point to something and say this is a benefit, we'd gain from this. But we also know that because it's finite and then a drought, if we're going to have to give something. But it's very doable and it's very achievable.

BLOCK: If it's so doable, Mr. Secretary, this has been a fight that's gone on for nearly two decades.

Sec. KEMPTHORNE: That's right.

BLOCK: There are a lot of lawsuits that have been filed in the federal court over this. Why haven't they done it before now?

Sec. KEMPTHORNE: Yeah. That's a very good question. For at least 18 years, this has been going on. And millions of dollars have been spent by the respective states fighting this in court. I believe that it's far better for the leadership to be able to fashion what that solution is. And pivotal to all of these are the governors.

BLOCK: And what makes you think you can help hammer out a deal now when that hasn't happened for so long leading up until now?

Sec. KEMPTHORNE: Well, I don't step into it lightly either. As a former governor, I know these gentlemen, we're friends. As a governor from the west…

BLOCK: You're the former governor of the state of Idaho.

Sec. KEMPTHORNE: That's correct. Thank you. I have been very involved in water issues. Surface water versus ground water versus municipalities versus agriculture versus the tribes, and how do you come to some sort of agreement. Those meetings can be very acrimonious, where people could just storm out of the door. But you need to bring them back in and say, okay, but we have to solve this.

BLOCK: Might you expect that at the end of the day tomorrow, someone will storm out of the door of your office? Or do you really think that by the end of this meeting that you will have hammered out some kind of agreement?

Sec. KEMPTHORNE: No. I do not believe anybody's going to storm out the door. These people know each other. They like each other. They respect each other.

BLOCK: Doesn't sound like they like each other based on some of the rhetoric that's been coming out of the south lately?

Sec. KEMPTHORNE: Well, it's, you know, it gets a little bit - or they're exchanging some comments through the airways and through the media. And so that's why they all recognize that here's an opportunity. Let's just call time out. Will we have a solution tomorrow? No, we will not, because we're not going to take something that's been 18 years in the making and solve it in 18 days.

BLOCK: Does there need, do you think, to be more attention paid to growth management? I mean, Atlanta has boomed tremendously and a lot of people say there's not been enough attention paid to how we're going to supply water to all these people as we develop.

Sec. KEMPTHORNE: Drinking water quantity is going to be one of the key issues that we have to talk about and the growth that's happening within that whole region. But I can't sit here today and say, this is a problem, this is a problem. And so we're going to cause such and such to occur. No. I need to be the individual, the honest broker that can sit down and say, all right, ladies and gentlemen, we're going to have good discussion, we're going to have an airing. And we're just going to lay this out on the table.

And governor, you have now heard another governor give his perspective. Do you concur with that or where do you disagree? And if you disagree, is it based on fact and what facts are you using? Now, Corps of Engineers, do you concur with those facts or are we not using the same data? Is there a misperception somewhere? If there's misperceptions, let's get those out on the table.

BLOCK: Secretary Kempthorne, thanks very much.

Sec. KEMPTHORNE: My pleasure.

BLOCK: That's Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. He'll be meeting tomorrow here in Washington with the governors of Florida, Alabama and Georgia to try to resolve a long-running water dispute.

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