11th Circuit allows Georgia water appeal to proceed

By the News Service of Florida
As Gov. Charlie Crist continues to try to navigate a long-standing water dispute with Georgia and Alabama, a federal appeals court has ruled that Georgia can move forward with an appeal.

The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a move by Florida and Alabama to halt Georgia’s effort to appeal a July lower court decision requiring the states work out a deal to better share the water that comes from the Atlanta area through the Chattahoochee River and down into the Flint and Apalachicola Rivers. If an agreement is not reached within three years, the allocations for each will revert to 1970s levels.

Florida and Alabama had argued that the decision could not be appealed because it was not final, but the three-judge panel of the appellate court in Atlanta disagreed.

Judges Gerald Tjoflat, Susan Black and Charles Wilson wrote in a five-page opinion released late Wednesday that the July ruling resolved all the outstanding issues and so with nothing else left to decide, the ruling was final in essence.

The decision came as the neighboring governors are trying to work out a plan that solves a decades-long water-sharing dispute. Florida and Alabama have argued that Atlanta takes more water than it should at the head waters of the Chattahoochee, arguing that the immense growth of Georgia’s capital city did not obscure the need for water to head south for power and for keeping a healthy seafood industry where the system dumps into the Gulf of Mexico.

The district court gave the states three years to work out a more equitable agreement. All three states’ populations have drastically increased as the water fight has dragged on, but metro Atlanta’s has quadrupled in size, putting Georgia in a major water deficit.

Despite the continued legal wrangling, Florida officials say Gov. Crist will continue talking to Govs. Sonny Perdue and Bob Riley, his counterparts from Georgia and Alabama respectively.

“There’s no impact on our approach,” Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey told the News Service Thursday. “We’re still speaking with the two states and we still have the (July) ruling in effect that we can move forward with. Any decision to appeal by Georgia will be left to Georgia.”

Ivey said that he did not think Georgia’s water appeal would dampen the desire of the three governors who are now in their final year in office to reach a deal before they leave office.

“We’re going to continue good-faith discussions with Georgia and Alabama,” he said. “This has been an ongoing issue for 20 years, (but) I think we have three governors that want to get something done.”

Georgia Gov. Perdue had indicated recently that a deal might be able to be reached during his state’s 40-day legislative session, which is already underway, but Florida officials said a deal would likely take a while because the tri-state talks were in the early stages.