By Dave Williams
ATLANTA - Georgia's struggles with Alabama, Florida and federal agencies over drought-depleted water supplies shifted Friday from legal threats to diplomacy.
Gov. Sonny Perdue met privately Friday morning with top-level federal environmental officials sent by President Bush to look into the claims and counter-claims of the three states' governors in their competition over water flowing down the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers.
Georgia filed a lawsuit last week demanding that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stop releasing more water from Lake Lanier than state officials say is necessary, either to protect endangered species of mussels in Florida, or supply a small power plant in Alabama.
But Friday's discussions, which Perdue called "productive," hopefully will lead to an agreement that will make pursuit of the court case unnecessary, the governor told reporters after meeting with U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
"The court was never my first choice," Perdue said.
The governor declined to go into details of Friday's discussions at the Capitol because Kempthorne and Connaughton were to meet later in the day with Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
Friday's separate talks were a prelude to a meeting of all three governors set for Thursday in Washington.
"It is far better when you have states that can come to an agreement than to have a federal court ruling," Kempthorne said after the meeting with Perdue, which also included Georgia's two U.S. senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson.
An agreement between the three states on how to share water has long been elusive. They've engaged in legal battles off and on for nearly two decades without a resolution.
The drought has raised the stakes considerably, with each governor firing off letters to the president advocating his state's position.
Perdue has blamed the Corps' water releases during a historic drought for the dramatic drop in lake levels that prompted him this week to order permit holders across North Georgia to cut their water use by 10 percent.
An outdoor watering ban has been in effect across the northern third of the state for about a month.
But the other governors have opposed Georgia's efforts to convince Bush to step in and order the agency to reduce the releases.
Connaughton said the federal delegation's mission in traveling to Georgia and the other states is to sort through the parties' contentions and develop a "common set of facts" that all could agree upon.
"The president was very adamant that the two of us come down here to get a look at the situation on the ground," he said.
Perdue, who repeatedly characterized the Corps' policies during the past week as nonsensical, said Friday's meeting helped him gain a better understanding of the role both the Corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are playing in trying to resolve Georgia's concerns.
"I came away with renewed respect for our federal partners who are willing to work with us on this critical issue," he said. "I am confident that the president of the United States will not allow Georgia citizens to run out of drinking water."