Riverkeeper not consulted as judge grants confidentiality

The talks among Alabama, Florida and Georgia over water-sharing are confidential now under an order entered last week by a federal judge — despite an objection from an environmental group involved in the litigation.

The three states have been battling in federal court since 1990 over water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. Alabama and Georgia want water for industries, farms and cities, including the Atlanta area, while Florida wants water to support fish and wildlife in the Apalachicola River and the seafood industry around Apalachicola Bay.

The states last week requested an order granting confidentiality and stated in their motion that other parties in the consolidated lawsuit did not object. But Apalachicola Riverkeeper says it is a party but was never contacted by the states.

“We didn’t want it to be confidential,” Andy Smith, the group’s executive director, said Monday. “We felt that (talks in private) has been a problem all along. We felt if it was going to be confidential, we want to be there.”

A response was requested on Monday from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection but none was provided. A DEP spokeswoman said last week that input from interested stakeholders is welcome.

U.S. District Judge Paul A. Magnuson ruled in July that Atlanta and other cities were illegally taking water from the Chattahoochee River. He gave the states until 2012 to win congressional approval for a new water-sharing agreement before the taps are shut off in north Georgia.

Last month, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist met privately in Montgomery, Ala. with the governors of Alabama and Georgia. The governors afterward told reporters they had agreed on an aggressive schedule for developing an agreement.

On Jan. 4, the states filed a joint motion saying that confidential talks were needed to help reach an agreement.

In his order filed last Thursday, Magnuson agreed, saying that settlement “of a complicated and inflammatory case such as this can occur only if some negotiations, whether among all parties or among only some of the parties, are conducted privately.”

Apalachicola Riverkeeper was considering last week what action to take on the motion when the order was issued three days later, Smith said. The group is concerned that the states will cut a deal as they almost did in 2002 that would have left Florida with only minimal flows amid “man-made droughts.”

Officials with the city of Apalachicola, which also may be a party to the litigation, could not be reached for comment.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)