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Federal officials met privately Friday with the governors of drought-stricken Alabama and Georgia and announced plans for an interagency team to tackle a long-standing water rights dispute involving those two states and Florida.
James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the high-level federal panel will have the "straightforward goal of acting with urgency to prevent an emergency."
Connaughton said the specifics of the plan could be in place soon after a meeting Thursday in Washington with Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and those states' congressional delegations.
The three states are mired in a years-long water fight over federal reservoirs, and an exceptional drought — the worst category, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center — covering almost a third of the Southeast has intensified the jockeying. Government forecasters reported the drought could soon get worse.
The shortage threatens drinking water supplies, agriculture and commercial fisheries, among other concerns.
Caught in the middle is the Army Corps of Engineers, which says it is complying with federal guidelines by sending millions of gallons of water from Georgia downstream to Florida and Alabama to supply power plants and protect federally threatened mussel species.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who was part of Friday's meetings in Montgomery and Atlanta, said he believes the governors can work through the dispute. He stressed that the states need to reach an agreement and keep the federal courts out of it.
Georgia lawmakers announced plans Thursday for a network of state reservoirs. Perdue also has ordered state agencies and public utilities to reduce usage, and authorities have banned outdoor watering in most of the state.
"Georgians are willing to do their share in understanding and sharing as good neighbors, but we respectfully ask the same of our neighbors," Perdue said Friday.
Georgia also sued the corps last week, demanding it send less water downstream. That brought objections from Riley and Crist, who have warned that Georgia's consumption, especially by the burgeoning Atlanta area with its population of 5 million, threatens their downstream states.
Riley, who had called Thursday for a truce, said Friday's meeting with Connaughton, Kempthorne and corps officials was encouraging.
"I think this is as frank a discussion as we've ever had," Riley said.