River flows cut to fight Southeast drought
By Matthew Bigg
ATLANTA (Reuters) - U.S. authorities began reducing on Friday the amount of water released down a key Georgia river system to conserve resources in the face of what they say is the worst drought in decades in the southeastern United States.
The decision was aimed at managing the effects of the drought and also resolving a sharp political dispute between the governors of Georgia, Alabama and Florida about how to share water resources.
Under the plan, the amount of water flowing south of the Woodruff Dam near Georgia's border with Alabama will be reduced to 4,750 cubic feet per second (cfs) from 5,000 cubic feet per second.
The decision would ensure there was enough water to serve the needs of communities and industries in the parts of Georgia, Alabama and Florida that depend on the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, and Flint rivers.
It would also not adversely affect endangered species in Florida's northwestern Panhandle region which depend on river water to reduce the amount of salinity in their habitat, officials said.
"This is not just about endangered species. It is about managing critical needs with a very limited resource," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne told a news conference, speaking via telephone link.
There was also a provision to reduce the flow of water further to 4,150 cfs (118 cubic meters per second) if necessary, said senior officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The advantage of the plan was to "keep in any rains that come into the reservoirs, in the reservoirs," said Brig. Gen. Joseph Schroedel, the Corps' south Atlantic division commander.
"Under the existing plan we would have had to have released any rains that came in excess of 5,000 cubic feet per second," he said, stressing that the plan was flexible and its effects would be monitored closely.
The Southeast is normally one of the wettest regions in the United States but a drought classified as "extreme" has affected parts of several states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and North and South Carolina.
Environmentalists say part of the problem is high consumption, aggravated by a lack of serious water conservation efforts in some of the fastest growing areas of the United States. Georgia has implemented some water restrictions including a ban on outdoor residential watering.
The dispute between the three state governors has centered on how to share water from Lake Lanier, 45 miles north of Atlanta, which stands near the headwater of the river system.
Lanier's water levels have fallen dramatically, leading to claims by state officials that it could run dry in a few months, but Schroedel said that even under the most extreme conditions with no rain there was at least 450 days of water left in it.
(Editing by Michael Christie and Mohammad Zargham)