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A Crisis On The Other Coast

As President Bush travels to parts of Southern California today to assess the damage wrought by wildfires there, he is being implored by politicians on the opposite side of the country to take a definitive stand on another natural-borne disaster: the intensifying water crisis in the South.

Since late September, politicians in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama have been fighting with each other and with two key federal agencies--the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service--over how to share a critical water source, used by all three states, that is now rapidly shrinking in the face of a continued, historic drought. Georgia officials have predicted that Atlanta's supply of drinking water could be imperiled, if not exhausted, by the end of the year.

Now, in the absence of a resolution or even signs of tangible progress, and as the crisis continues to deepen, the states are pleading their cases to the president.

On Wednesday, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist sent a letter to President Bush asking him to reject the request that was made by the state of Georgia last Saturday. Georgia officials have asked the White House to issue an executive order to "suspend environmental laws" that protect the habitats of three aquatic species living in Georgia and Florida.

The suspension of environmental laws, Georgia officials say, is necessary to put the brakes on what they see as the main cause of the current water debacle. The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the reservoir at Lake Lanier, is required to comply with the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which mandates federal protection for the habitats of endangered species. To uphold the law as well as to keep power plants in Alabama up and running the Corps of Engineers for the past several months has been releasing water from Lake Lanier at a rate vastly in excess of its rate of replenishment.

The net effect, Georgia officials contend, is that Lake Lanier is dropping alarmingly fast and, moreover, putting the water supply of the region in jeopardy. "The corps is sending 3.2 billion gallons of water downstream out of [the] Georgia reservoir every day," Perdue said in a news conference on Saturday. "That's enough to fill three and a half Olympic-size swimming pools every minute." He also called the corps' actions "irresponsible" and "dangerous."

The corps has rejected the governor's claims of impending calamity, saying that even if the region does go without rain for the next six months, there will still be water from the lake to support the needs of both people and industry. Accomplishing that feat, the corps admits, would require that it dip into the reservoir's conservation pool. Hydrology experts caution that such water is often dirtier and in need of greater treatment.

Perdue, a Republican, has been joined in his missive-writing this week by the state's two U.S. senators, Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, also both Republican, who sent their own letter to the president on Wednesday. The letter, signed by the entire Georgia congressional delegation, praised Perdue's efforts and expressed support for his request that the president "implement exemptions to the Endangered Species Act."

Officials in Florida and Alabama, however, disagree vehemently with the solution that Georgia has proposed. In addition to questioning its legality, they contend that it would sacrifice the economic and social interests of the region while selfishly preserving those of Georgia, and more specifically, of Atlanta.

In his letter to President Bush, Crist wrote that Georgia's request for a special suspension of the Endangered Species Act, if granted, would "withhold water needed in Florida's Apalachicola River and would have serious adverse effects on the River and Apalachicola Bay." The extended impact, he continued, would be a "profound disruption" of the Florida panhandle and the Apalachicola region, which currently runs a 200 million annual commercial fishing industry.

In an Atlanta-Journal Constitution op-ed on Thursday, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley echoed Crist's remarks. "We cannot stand by and watch Georgia make a claim on the water in those reservoirs as if it belonged only to Atlanta," he wrote. "Downstream communities in Alabama and Georgia depend on the releases from those reservoirs to meet drinking water needs in times of drought as well as to support industry."

Without continued flows, Riley continued, "industries will be forced to shut down, and thousands of Georgia and Alabama families will lose their income."

Both Riley and Crist have signaled that they are interested in pursuing discussions with the state of Georgia to find an interim compromise. Georgia, however, has charted a more aggressive course in the past two weeks, first with a suit against the Corps of Engineers, filed last week, and more recently with its appeal to the President.

The Bush administration, for its part, has not vocally endorsed any position or state, although recent actions suggest that Georgia's appeal has been well received. According to a statement by White House spokesperson Dana Perino last weekend, the administration has been in touch with the Corps of Engineers about "drafting interim address the endangered species requirement." Perino also said that the agency is in the process of "revising the operations manual for the river basin."

By Kent Garber