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In Water Wars, Georgia meets its Waterloo

July 21, 2009  If the famed “Water Wars” dispute can properly be called a war, Georgia met its Waterloo last week when U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that municipalities in Metro Atlanta will have to stop withdrawing water from Lake Lanier in three years if the state can’t get permission from Congress to do so.

The decision by the 72-year-old Minnesotan appointed to settle this long-running dispute was met with near-jubilation by the other combatants, Alabama and Florida. Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama said the ruling had “tremendous” significance for his state’s economic and environmental future, and cheered the end of “this massive illegal grab.” Florida Gov. Charlie Crist called it a “monumental milestone.”

In reality, the Water Wars have been less like any war of modern times, and more like the environmental equivalent of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the interminable court case at the center of Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House.” Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has already signaled his determination to appeal, and the negotiations are likely to drag on, although Georgia finds itself in a substantially weaker position now.

Long before Magnuson’s ruling Friday, there were considerable misgivings about the state’s legal strategy in fighting this case out at the district court level rather than taking the case immediately to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This case has sustained an entire generation of lawyers. In an earlier ruling, Magnuson voiced his own exasperation with the state’s trench-warfare approach.

“No party’s position is advanced by the type of slash-and-burn litigation tactics evidenced by these multiple motions. Perhaps more importantly, the interests of the respective clients … are harmed by the voluminous paperwork and at times vitriolic argument submitted to the court,” Magnuson wrote.

Those misgivings have come back in a flurry of second-guessing by Democratic candidates for governor, who sense the emergence of a major issue in next year’s governor’s race.

"Georgia's Republican Leaders have been using lawyers and engineers and political fixers to put off this day, and all of the millions of dollars poured into that effort has finally come to nothing.  Instead of investing in the science we needed to learn what our resources are, and the hard policy decisions to learn how we can most effectively use them, we have spent our money trying to move the water to where the developers and mortgage peddlers wanted the growth to occur,” state Rep. DuBose Porter said in a statement after the ruling Friday.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes told Paul Yates of Atlanta’s Fox Five TV Monday he had intended to file suit in the U.S. Supreme Court no later than 2003.

“That was the plan before I left and it was what we should have done. And if we had done it this issue would have been determined,” Barnes said.

 But in a press conference Tuesday, Perdue refused to acknowledge the state's strategy had cost it anything, and he remained as adamant in his position as George Wallace before he stood in the schoolhouse door.

 “We’ll continue to use what we need and only what we need, but we will fight to the death to use what we need,” he told reporters at a news conference.

He also said he’s willing to re-open negotiations with his counterparts in the other states, but he added, “I will not negotiate a deal that’s harmful to the future of Georgia. Just won’t happen. We will take our chance in the court before we will agree to a deal that does not meet the need of a growing and prosperous Georgia.”

Perdue  committed himself to continuing this costly legal strategy at the same press conference in which he announced cutbacks in the state budget, including 3 percent cutbacks in the Medicaid and schools budgets, along with mandatory three-day furloughs for all state employees including teachers, to deal with the current revenue shortfall.

The Republican candidate most on the hot seat in the decision’s wake is US Rep. Nathan Deal, because the issue has been kicked up to Congress. Not surprisingly, it was Deal who first broached the idea of getting the governors back together to work things out. The North Georgia Republican noted in a statement that there was “nothing to prohibit the governors of the three states from coming together and reaching a long-term workable solution.”

Nothing, that is, except one governor, Perdue, who’s been extremely reluctant to come to any sort of deal, and two governors, Riley and Crist, who sense that they’ve finally gained the advantage in this long struggle. That, and the fact that none of the three will be in office after this year.

On Tuesday afternoon, the entire Georgia congressional delegation was scheduled to meet and talk by telephone with Perdue about what to do next. In a state where the delegation is sharply divided along partisan lines, and where the governor has kept his distance from both the delegation and the legislature, that would have been an unprecedented gathering. It may also have been a very contentious one.

 One possible way forward could be contained in the language inserted in the 2010 Energy and Water Appropriations bill by US Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla), calling for the US Army Corps of Engineers to move forward on a study of water issues in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. That effort could provide the loose framework for some sort of grand deal that might spare Atlanta’s northern suburbs from having the faucet turned off in 2012.

That’s very tentative, and it would require the Georgia delegation to work with a congressman who has already declared his state won a “tremendous victory” last Friday. But the three-year clock is now ticking, and at this stage, nobody seems to have any better ideas.

“You don’t miss your water ‘til your well’s run dry,” the late Otis Redding used to sing. If the legendary Georgia soul singer were around today, he might be inspired to add another verse or two to that song.



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