Southern States May Take Water Dispute to Court
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Heavy rainfall has brought relief for many areas suffering from drought in the Southeast. Even so, parts of the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama haven't moved out of what's being called exceptional drought conditions, which is a political problem as well as meteorological one. And last week, things took a bad turn as talks among Florida, Georgia and Alabama on how to resolve the nearly two-decade-old water dispute broke down.
NPR's Greg Allen has been following the talks and joins us from Miami.
And, Greg, remind us exactly what this dispute is all about.
GREG ALLEN: Well, Renee, this is a battle over water resources, which are increasingly scarce in this part of the Southeast. What's happened is that over the past three decades, Atlanta has grown at a rapid rate and it's required more and more water. This really emerged as a problem in the '80s, and then in 1990 Alabama and Florida went to court to try to block what people in both states often refer to as Georgia's water grab.
So as the drought in the Southeast intensified last year, the problem became a real crisis. And one of the region's main reservoirs, Lake Lanier, right now is nearly 15 feet below its normal level. So Georgia wants to keep more of the water in its reservoirs, and that's been opposed by Florida and Alabama, who say they need good water flows downstream.
MONTAGNE: And given that it involves several states, what role has the federal government taken in all this?
ALLEN: A few months ago, Dirk Kempthorne, who's the secretary of the interior, began mediating talks about the three states. And he came in fairly confident, because he's from the West and he's been involved in coming up with agreements over water disputes out there, where it's so vital. After three months, he conceded that the talks were dead, and it looked like the three states were probably going to go back to court to resolve this.
MONTAGNE: Well, again, we've said this has been going on for a couple of decades. Why's it so hard for the states to come up with an agreement?
ALLEN: Well, I think the problem is that each governor has to safeguard the interest of their own states, and, you know, they're all very different. At the meeting in the photo ops that they hold when they get together they all talk about working together and finding common ground. But when they get home, they talk to their farmers and they talk to their water managers, it's a whole different matter.
Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue made people very angry in Alabama recently, and Florida, saying that the problem, as he sees it, is the other states still don't realize how vital and how critical Georgia's water needs are. And that really made Governor Bob Riley of Alabama angry, led him to say the talks are dead. It also reinforced a prevailing view in Alabama and here in Florida that Georgia is still unwilling to take the tough steps needed to address a water shortage that's not going away.
MONTAGNE: And, Greg, there's just news recently also about Georgia trying to actually move its border to access some water.
ALLEN: That's right, Renee. While this dispute has been going on with Alabama and Florida, Georgia's actually looking north to try to see if they can find some relief for its water problems there to Tennessee and to the Tennessee River, which right now doesn't run through Georgia.
Georgia officials say that through a mistake more than a century ago, the state line was drawn in the wrong place. They should have access to the Tennessee River. So the state legislature recently passed a resolution aimed at starting the process to redraw the border. We'll see what happens on that.
MONTAGNE: Long shot, though.
But as for the water dispute among Florida, Alabama and Georgia, that looks like that's going to ultimately have to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Greg Allen, speaking in Miami.
Thanks very much.
ALLEN: My pleasure.
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