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After more than a decade of wrangling, Alabama, Georgia and Florida have announced a tentative agreement on a Florida proposal for sharing water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.
Alabama and Georgia officials said the proposal, which was offered late Monday, appears to meet their future growth needs through 2050. Florida officials said the proposal will protect endangered species along the Apalachicola River floodplain and oysters in Apalachicola Bay.
"It's all there," said Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs. "We're really confident we've done that."
The states will meet by March 18 to vote on formally accepting the proposal.
Florida and Georgia officials and federal representative Lindsay Thomas called the agreement historic. The Florida chapter of the Nature Conservancy said it was encouraged by the agreement while other interest groups along the hundreds of miles of rivers said that they had not seen the proposal but that they were encouraged by the apparent progress.
The proposal aims to protect the Apalachicola River and bay by setting minimum river flows at Chattahoochee that would double to 10,000 cubic feet per second when there is more water in upstream federal reservoirs.
The proposal would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fill up federal reservoirs during the wetter spring months so that water is available in the late summer when there is less rainfall, Struhs said.
"You share the adversity, but you also share the benefits - it cuts both ways," he said.
The proposal, Struhs said, will require the growing Atlanta area to conserve or seek new water supplies after 2030, when the region is expected to use up its available water. Likewise during droughts all the various users of the rivers would be affected.
Representatives of the three states said they will try to draft a proposal in the next 60 days that they can all support. If they vote to accept a proposal, there will be a 60-day public comment period, and hearings would be held in the three states. If they eventually approve the proposal, it will be sent to the federal representative for review.
The states have been battling over water use for more than a decade. The states and Congress agreed in 1997 to establish the talks toward reaching a water-sharing agreement to avoid a lengthy court fight.
Scientists say fish and wildlife in the Apalachicola River and oysters in the bay need periodic flooding and drought to mimic natural cycles. Fresh water pushes back the stone crabs and other predators that can decimate oyster reefs.
But other water users along the river also want water during droughts. They include recreational boaters, farmers, shipping interests, waterfront homeowners and Atlanta-area water utilities.
The Apalachicola Bay and River Keeper environmental group in Eastpoint criticized an earlier Florida draft proposal for allowing Georgia to guarantee only a minimal amount of water to Florida. David McLain, executive director of the group, said Tuesday he could not comment on the new proposal because he has not had time to read it.
"I'm encouraged we have at least gotten to this point," he said. However, he added, "A flawed agreement is not in our interest either."
But Bob Bendick, southeast division director of The Nature Conservancy, said his group was encouraged, particularly by the agreement's recognition of "the need to manage for variable river flows that are similar to the natural flow regime."
Georgia had offered its own proposal Friday, but Florida officials said they could not support it.
Georgia representative Bob Kerr said Tuesday that the proposal made by Florida on Monday was close to Georgia's.
If the states had not agreed to an extension, the talks would have ended and the issue could have gone to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We think this is a substantial and acceptable step in reaching" an agreement, Kerr said.
Alabama negotiator Jim Campbell said he had not read the proposal, but he had seen some proposed water flow rates for the Chattahoochee River near Columbus, Ga.
"The numbers look all right," he said.
Georgia water interests expressed hope that an agreement will be reached.
"It would be nice if this could get settled," said Pat Stevens of the Atlanta Regional Commission. "When these kinds of arguments go on forever, citizens lose, taxpayers lose, lawyers get rich."
Struhs said that an eventual agreement would help Florida by safeguarding water supplies that could not be ensured by a court fight.
"A judge could say, 'Here is how we are going to allocate water,' " Struhs said. "Five years, 10 years later, you could be back in court allocating it all over again."
New water-sharing proposal would:
Set minimum flows on the Apalachicola River at Chattahoochee at 5,000 cubic feet per second, the minimum needed for endangered mussels to survive.
Double the river flow at Chattahoochee to 10,000 cubic feet per second in March and April when there is more water in upstream federal reservoirs.
Extend the agreement until 2050, forcing the growing Atlanta region to look for new water supplies when it uses up its available water by 2030.
Allow water releases from reservoirs to help barges move upstream only when "emergency circumstances" exist or when barges are needed to ship goods that can't be hauled over land.
Require a drought plan to be approved within three years. Until then, a committee will meet when needed to determine when drought conditions exist.
Establish a scientific advisory panel to measure biological changes in the river system in response to changes in water flow.