June 21, 2008

Florida Urges Feds To Back Off Atlanta Water Plan

By Billy House, Tampa Tribune, Fla.

Jun. 21--WASHINGTON -- Florida officials are threatening to sue the federal government unless the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reconsiders its plan to withhold more water from federal reservoirs and lakes in Georgia.

More flow is needed into the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, state officials warn, or the Gulf sturgeon fish and three varieties of federally protected mussels in the Apalachicola River and bay will be further jeopardized.

"In sum, the Corps has committed both procedural and substantive violations of the" Endangered Species Act, asserts a 60-day Notice of Intent to sue letter, signed by Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole.

The seven-page letter adds: "The purpose of this letter is to put the Corps on notices of those violations and provide it with an opportunity to take corrective measures."

The corps will not comment on any possible litigation, said E. Patrick Robbins, a spokesman from its Mobile, Ala., district office, after the letter's public release Friday.

Sole's letter is the latest chapter in a long-running water war among Florida, Georgia and Alabama, exacerbated by two years of regional drought conditions.

At issue now is a new drought plan allowing operators of federal dams in Georgia to withhold more water for metropolitan Atlanta at the expense of downstream areas.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already has determined that retention of more water from the reservoirs north of Atlanta would have some adverse effects on Gulf sturgeon and three types of endangered mussels -- the fat three-ridge, Chipola slabshell and the purple bankclimber.

But the agency also had determined it won't endanger the continued existence of those species.

The service's go-ahead was needed for the corps to proceed for the next five years with its Revised Interim Operations Plan, which allows for reduced outflows to as low as 4,500 cubic feet per second from Lake Lanier and other Chattahoochee River reservoirs north of Atlanta.

Florida officials, however, argue that any reduction below 5,000 cubic feet per second endangers the overall health of wildlife habitats and species in the areas downstream in Florida, and also poses a serious threat to the livelihood of fishermen and oyster harvesters.

Although the Fish and Wildlife Service has condoned the plan, Sole's letter says the service's findings can't be squared with the scientific facts. Proceeding with the plan "will reduce Apalachicola River levels to unprecedented lows, exposing various populations of threatened and endangered mussels and precluding any chance that those populations might recover," Sole's letter says.

U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, a Democrat from Monticello in North Florida who has helped lead efforts to bloc the corps' plan, applauded the state's actions.

"It is imperative that we all stand together to make sure that these resources are protected," he said.

Reporter Billy House can be reached at (202) 662-7673 or [email protected]


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