TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The governors of three drought-stricken Southeastern states agreed Monday to speed up talks on sharing water during scarcities, hoping to end a nearly 18-year fight over the issue by March.
The governors of Florida, Alabama and Georgia and federal officials also agreed not to reduce for now the minimum amount of water that will flow into the Apalachicola River, which feeds a major oyster breeding ground in the Florida Panhandle. That eases the minds of some fishermen and Florida officials — they had feared the flow could be further reduced to meet drinking water needs in Atlanta.
Florida's Charlie Crist, Georgia's Sonny Perdue and Alabama's Bob Riley said they agreed that their staffs will continue to work together to come up with a plan for doling out the region's water by March 15.
That was hopeful news to fishermen along the Panhandle Gulf Coast, who were looking at the prospect of water flows remaining lower than they say they can tolerate until June 1, when an interim agreement on flow levels originally had been set to expire. Now, there's a possibility of agreeing on raising the amount of water coming into Florida earlier.
"We're cautiously optimistic," said Kevin Begos, the director of the Franklin County Oyster & Seafood Task Force.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, who also participated, said he was pleased the governors have agreed to try to end the states' nearly two decades of disagreement on the issue as early as this spring.
"This was real, it was meaningful," Kempthorne said. "The atmosphere today reinvigorates me that we can get this done."
One of the worst droughts in years in the Southeast has created a sense of urgency, all three governors acknowledged.
"We're talking about solving something we've been working on for 18 years within the next two months," Riley said.
The fast-growing Atlanta area gets most of its water from Lake Lanier, at the head of the river basin shared by the states. But drawing more water from the lake means less for downstream uses in Alabama and Florida.
Alabama is concerned about water for the Joseph M. Farley Nuclear Plant, near Dothan.
Florida is concerned about freshwater flowing into Apalachicola Bay, a prime shellfish producing area, that produces about 1 in 10 of the oysters eaten in the country.
The amount of freshwater flowing through the Apalachicola-Chatahoochee-Flint river system into the Gulf at the mouth of the Apalachicola River has been reduced to near historic lows, threatening the fishing industry there.
The flow increased in recent days because of a downpour over the weekend, but it had been reduced to a level that fishermen had said wouldn't sustain their industry. Making them more nervous, U.S. Corps of Engineers officials had said they might reduce the flow further. And it wasn't likely to be renegotiated until June 1.
But fishermen have said that to keep the low amount of water going into the bay through the spring spawning season would devastate the industry.
Crist said he understands the needs of the bay's fishermen and oystermen, who complained in a recent meeting that the river mouth and bay are already so salty that oysters can't survive. Speeding up the timeline could help could mean earlier relief.
"Florida's oyster industry faces an uncertain spring, due to the current drought," Crist said. "Spawning season is critical to our northwest Florida economy."
Crist also hinted that Georgia might need to increase its conservation — noting Florida has made moves to cut use since the drought began.
"We all share the difficulties of the current drought — all three of our states must provide for comprehensive water conservation efforts," Crist said.
None of the governors, however, would talk specifics about where their chief remaining obstacles lie.
Water flows into the bay are also a concern for environmentalists, who worry about the effect of less water on other species besides oysters.
The endangered Gulf sturgeon, and two species of mussel, the fat threeridge and the threatened purple bankclimber, are also imperiled by lower flows.
In early December, authorities said there was less than four months of available water left in Lake Lanier. Perdue said recent reductions in flow that Florida opposed have aided in raising the lake's level.
"The flow reductions have helped, the ability to recover some of the rainfall and store that has helped," Perdue said. "But we've got to have a protocol that determines how we're going to share in times of scarcity, and that's what we're all trying to figure out."
Just last week, Florida water managers approved restrictions on water use in the southern part of the state. Starting early next year, outside watering will only be allowed once a week from Orlando south to the Keys.
The meeting also follows a major agreement signed last week that will allow seven western states to conserve and share Colorado River water, ending a divisive battle among those states