ALBANY, Ga. - Georgia is preparing to step up its offensive in the long-running battle with its neighbors over federal water rights by focusing on Florida's environmental record and dredging up a 150-year-old ruling that could give Alabama less control of a key river, Gov. Sonny Perdue told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday.
Perdue said he was prepared to play "hardball" with his neighbors in the regional fight over water rights after a federal judge issued a ruling last month that could restrict metro Atlanta from tapping its main water source.
"I'm very much of a consensus builder. I'm prepared to negotiate in good faith," Perdue told the AP. "But I think all the facts have to be laid on the table. At some point, you just can't allow people to just throw stones at you and throw stones at you. I've learned at some point you run out of cheeks to turn."
He said Georgia's strategy will focus on an 1859 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established Georgia's boundary along the western edge of the Chattahoochee River, which is shared by the three states. He said the caselaw could require Alabama officials to request key withdrawal permits from Georgia.
Noting that Georgia's water use has been scrutinized throughout the litigation, he also said Georgia is prepared to turn the microscope on Florida's conservation record, saying the state "doesn't necessarily have a stellar environmental reputation either."
"When I fly over Florida, you know what I see? Canals everywhere. What are they used for? Irrigation, agriculture. If we tried to create the canals that Florida has, we'd be sunk. The beaches of Florida don't look like the barrier islands of Georgia," he said. "Those are the points I'm prepared to make if we want to play hardball."
The three-state legal battle over federal water rights has been brewing for almost two decades. It intensified in July when U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson found that Georgia had little right to withdraw water from Lake Lanier, the massive federal reservoir that supplies more than 3 million metro Atlanta residents.
Magnuson ruled that serving as a source of drinking water was not among the lake's original purposes and set a three-year deadline for Congress to approve a deal. If that doesn't happen, withdrawals from the north Georgia reservoir could be cut to the levels from the 1970s when Atlanta was a fraction of its size.
The deadline has sent Georgia's leaders scrambling for a solution. Perdue has outlined a multi-pronged effort that includes attempting to jump-start negotiations with the neighboring states. Perdue has offered the governors of Alabama and Florida 40 possible dates to meet and discuss a water deal.
Spokesmen for Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist have said the governors are reviewing possible dates.
Riley said earlier Thursday that he had written a letter to Perdue offering to seek a date and place where the three governors can meet to negotiate.
"I want to do it as quick as possible. I'm glad he's agreed that the best way to resolve the issue is to meet," Riley said.
Perdue had earlier suggested lifting the confidentiality agreement when the governors resume talks. Riley said that would be "almost impossible" because of the many interests involved in the talks, including federal officials.
Perdue, who was in Albany on Thursday to brief local officials on the water litigation, said Georgia will also appeal the judge's ruling, likely later this year. And he said he hopes to "nationalize" the issue by highlighting 48 reservoirs in 19 states that could face the same legal issues besetting Georgia.
"It's the appropriate role of Congress, who authorize federal reservoirs and appropriate money for them, to address the issue: Is human water consumption an appropriate use of a federal reservoir?"
But leaders of Georgia's congressional delegation have repeatedly urged the governors to hash out a deal that they can ratify. And Perdue said Thursday he knows that working out a deal between the states is the only way to avoid endless litigation.
He said negotiations with his GOP counterparts have grown increasingly frustrating in recent years, and said Florida and Alabama seem like they're teaming up against his state. And that, he said, has forced him to take a more aggressive stance.
"There has been strategically, from a negotiation standpoint and litigation-wise, a gang-up strategy, a two against one strategy from the very beginning," he said. "And I'm getting ready to engage in that from an offensive standpoint."