Shining a light on the water

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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20 comments Add your comment


August 23rd, 2009
3:33 pm

Sorry Sonny has an excuse for every failure if we listen to his spin. He has a lot to do transportation,water,economy,employment and budget wonder what his excuses are?

The Sarge

August 23rd, 2009
5:10 pm

Never mind excuses…that water never was intended, by the Corps of Eng, to support the unfettered and irresponsible growth of one metropolis. Water drawn, thus far, has been taken on the “assumption” of Community property. That the Corps has allowed Georgia to siphon this long is yet another sign of the “paper tiger” image which this moot outfit has more-than-amply earned since way before Katrina…but that’s another story.

Thus far, we have three grown entities, known as state leadership, behaving like a bunch of spoiled kids who, unwilling to reach consensus, resort to such childish tactics as the holding of ones’ breath, the taking home of ones’ marbles, and the refusal to share, with the adults (read taxpayers), the dialogue between the brats.

Something of which all Georgians can be proud in their Governor. Sometimes, Sonney, you’ve gotta rise above the foolishness of your contemporaries; not join them.


August 23rd, 2009
7:10 pm

Instead of this political posturing, why isn’t Sonny doing something to find alternative sources of drinking water or (GASP) begin conserving. His actions indicate that he believes that the Metro area is entitled to have first shot at the Chattahoochee basin water, and everyone else can have what’s left over.

Sorry, Sonny. The law says we all have to share. Maybe someone in charge would take you seriously if your constituents weren’t still issuing building permits while complaining about not getting enough water.

History Repeats...

August 23rd, 2009
7:30 pm

Just a reminder folks– If Roy Barnes had been re-elected instead of the accidental guv’na we got– we would be nearing the completion of a new network of regional reservoirs about now– crisis averted… alas ‘history’ and the voters of Georgia have dealt us another hand…


August 23rd, 2009
8:51 pm

And I have a bridge for you in Vidalia.
No one is stupid enough to believe that King Roy would have been the savior.


August 23rd, 2009
9:05 pm

yep, and we’d all have jobs at the van plant down in Savannah.


August 23rd, 2009
9:29 pm



August 23rd, 2009
9:54 pm

Enough already about Atlanta and your water problems. Have ya’ll built any type of retention system or lakes…no. You only want to steal water from others while you continue to issue building permits. Well we in Tennessee are ready to do battle with you and fat Sonny. Old border or new border it’s not going to work. You guys are in for a fight with your border rednecks and we’re not about to back down. So you better find a rod that will direct you to a “spring”. Then you can hose down the masses.

[...] at the AJC, Jim Galloway brings us news that Gov Perdue wants to open some currently sealed records to shine some light on who’s really doing what to solve this problem. Political posturing or [...]


August 24th, 2009
12:34 am

The Sarge — the VAST majority of the water that the Atlanta metro uses is treated and returned back to the river. The net impact on users downstream is almost zero. Why do you have such a bad attitude about usage which has very little real impact on the entire system?

Michael — Many attempts have been made to create new reservoirs, and most of those projects were challenged in court by … guess who … Alabama and Florida. Heck, the one new reservoir that the region has managed to build (Hickory Log Creek) is now the target of a new legal challenge by Alabama. Which is it to be? It seems like Atlanta is condemned for its actions no matter what it does.

Bill White

August 24th, 2009
8:01 am

It wasn’t AL or FL that got in y’all’s way on the reservoirs. It’s the far left tree huggers that won’t let the reservoirs from getting built. Patriotic Gov. Perdue and heroes like St. Senator Shafer are going to win the battle to redraw that GA-TN line. Then, they’ll build a big ole pipe to rescue N. Ga and Atlanta. This is a brilliant move on Georgia’s part. That Tennesse River is your water. Y’all need to take TN to court.


August 24th, 2009
8:09 am

News for Prootwadl: the “vast majority” of the water that Metro Atlanta uses is not returned to the Chattahoochee River.

During summer months, when water use is high and the river is typically low from lack of rain, only about half of the water pulled out of the river and used to supply metro homes and businesses is returned to the river. The rest is piped to other river basins, used to water yards and evaporated at power plants.


August 24th, 2009
8:19 am

Deal, Real, Steal. The big story of the weekend was the story on Deal calling meeting to ensure that his business didn’t go out to competitive bid. Due to his insider influence, that state of Georgia paid about $750,000 in additional fees because Deal & Cagle lined up to squash a competitive bid, and shut down the program.


August 24th, 2009
8:49 am

Everyone keeps forgetting that Georgia Power and Southern Company actually use nearly HALF the flowing water in Georgia to generate electricity. Evaporative cooling and steam to drive the turbines.
All about making sure Georgia has enough electricity.
Maybe we should start rationing electricity along with water to prepare the public for the carbon tax.
At least we are stealing some of Alabama’s rain due to wind directions.

[...] In today’s print edition, I’ve got a piece on Gov. Sonny Perdue and his call to make this next round of water negotiations [...]


August 24th, 2009
9:49 am

Technocrat is right. This is more about electricity than it is water. Michael Garrett’s appointment to head up negotiations for Perdue makes that clear. Georgia’s position in this fight looks a lot better if the perception is that drinking water is the main concern.


August 24th, 2009
10:56 am

Dumb question: If Georgia has so many man-made lakes built to generate hydroelectric power, why is only 1% of our power hydroelelectric?


August 24th, 2009
2:08 pm

Someone should remind Alabama and Florida that Lake Lanier was not authorized for the purpose of cooling a nuclear power plant in Dothan or for maintaining certain salinity levels in a distant bay.


August 24th, 2009
2:10 pm

Someone should remind Alabama and Florida that Lake Lanier was not authorized for the purpose of cooling a nuclear power plant in Dothan or for maintaing certain salinity levels in a distant bay.

[...] at the AJC, Jim Galloway brings us news that Gov Perdue wants to open some currently sealed records to shine some light on who’s really doing what to solve this problem. Political posturing or [...]