Gov. Sonny Perdue says that, back in 2007, Georgia and Alabama nearly resolved one part of a generation-long fight over water — the part that deals with the water drawn from Lake Allatoona.
But Alabama walked away, Perdue says.
Bob Riley, governor of the state to our west, doesn’t call Perdue a fibber. No, Riley uses the word “disingenuous.”
The point is, we don’t know which governor is talking straight. Every document that might back up Perdue’s account is under lock and key. Both he and Riley have sworn to keep details of their negotiations secret.
Want to see a copy of the document each man signed, vowing to keep his mouth shut? You can’t. It, too, is off-limits. One of the rules of court-ordered mediation, a spokesman for Perdue said.
In what has become known in Montgomery circles as the “Your friend Sonny” letter — that’s how Perdue signed it on July 31 — our Georgia governor challenged Alabama’s governor help him to make public the innards of past negotiations.
The cache of hidden documents, Perdue wrote, “only leads interested parties to speculate and to question the veracity of those of us who were in the room negotiating,” Perdue wrote.
The Georgia governor asked his counterpart to sign a confidentiality waiver — and also assigned Riley the task of obtaining the appropriate signature from Alabama Power, a party to the affair.
(Georgia Power, too, has a front row seat that you don’t. Perdue has named utility CEO Michael Garrett as his lead water negotiator.)
Todd Stacy, Riley’s press secretary, scoffs at Perdue’s open-mindedness. First, Stacy said, the Georgia governor is “cherry picking” his issues.
For instance, Perdue’s offer to make details of past negotiations public extended only to talks about Lake Allatoona and its basin, not the more volatile negotiations over water from Lake Lanier — which also involves Florida.
Secondly, Stacy said, Perdue understood his offer would be rejected when he made it. “I don’t know of any other entity involved in the water talks that would agree to it, and he knows it. It’s more political posturing than anything else,” Stacy said.
But last week, after meeting with Georgia’s congressional delegation, Perdue said he was serious about shining more light on water talks.
“It would be my preference that these future negotiations not be covered by confidentiality agreements,” the Georgia governor said.
Even if this is unlikely to happen, it’s useful to look at why Perdue would argue for a more open process.
First, while many will argue that secrecy is a key to candid negotiations, Perdue clearly believes that a vow of silence has — at least in the past — also allowed Alabama and Florida to walk away without penalty.
Even the threat of publicity might help keep other governors at the table.
Georgia is also the one state in the trio with diverse interests in the water wars. Southwest Georgia has often sided with Alabama and Florida. Perdue has already made one trip to Columbus to assure locals that he won’t sell them down the Chattahoochee River.
Even if some dismiss it as posturing, advocating more openness could help the governor preserve that downstream trust.
Then there’s the numbers game.
With last month’s ruling by a federal judge, who said most of metro Atlanta has no right to drinking water from Lake Lanier, Georgia’s disadvantage in the courtroom became clear.
A congressional fix is needed, the judge said. But in Congress, things are no better. ”We have 13 members in the House. Florida has 25. Alabama has nine. So it’s a 34-to-13 kind of deal,” U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Coweta County) said last week.
This state’s only numerical advantage comes with the 3.5 million throats that are watered daily by Lake Lanier alone. In terms of population, Georgia rules.
If these voices are to be kept in reserve, they must be engaged. And to be engaged, Perdue might argue, they must be informed.
Lindsay Thomas is a former Georgia congressman whose involvement in water issues stretches back decades. He once served as a kind of federal referee in the tri-state talks.
Thomas considers confidentiality — and the compromises that come with it — essential to resolving the water dispute, which he terms the most complicated issue he’s ever encountered.
“There were times when we were down to settling some highly technical matters, that really only our technical team understood and had the ability to deal with,” Thomas said. “In those cases, I don’t see the necessity of declaring that wide open for a lot of interpretation.”
But the average citizen shouldn’t feel shut out, the former congressman said. In fact, Thomas predicted that the three governors will be forced to find ways to wrap as many interests as possible into future negotiations.
For by requiring that Congress approve the use of Lake Lanier water for drinking, the federal judge has — in essence — created an informal court of appeals that will have to approve whatever water agreement the three states reach.
Any group or interest dissatisfied with the deal — environmentalists, for the sake of argument — would be able to force a very public debate in Washington.
“That’s the check-and-balance that says the states still cannot do something that runs afoul of the federal laws that are designed to protect the environment and the ecology of these rivers,” Thomas said.
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