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Corps Says Plan Won't Doom Four Endangered Species

By Associated Press

Atlanta GA – A federal plan to reduce water flows in the Apalachicola River won't irreversibly doom four federally protected species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday.

Flows in the Panhandle river are being reduced as part of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drought management plans that keep more water upstream in Georgia. One plan is expiring, but the Corps has a new plan going into effect.

Some biologists and environmentalists have raised concerns about the impact on the Gulf sturgeon fish, and three mussels: the fat threeridge mussel, the purple bankclimber and the Chipola slabshell.

But the Fish and Wildlife Service released a biological opinion saying the Corps' new plan won't "appreciably reduce the likelihood that the four listed species can survive nor would it preclude their future recovery."

The opinion did say there could be some negative impact, notably with the fat threeridge mussel, which could lose up to 9 percent of a population that's already declining largely because of drought conditions.

The opinion was greeted with disappointment by many in Florida, where politicians, and environmental and seafood industry officials have been pushing for more water to be allowed to flow into the Apalachicola River.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said the new plans for reduced water flow jeopardize more than just the species targeted in the Fish and Wildlife study.

"This revised plan creates significant challenges in managing one of the most productive and diverse estuaries on the Gulf of Mexico," Crist said in a statement released by his office. "Regrettably, today's decision jeopardizes the hope of Florida's downstream communities which rely on proper flows to sustain a vibrant ecosystem."

Florida and Alabama officials rely on downstream water flows for power plants and commercial fisheries.

Florida, Georgia and Alabama have been in a legal and political battle over water rights since the early 1990s, but the fight has intensified in the past year as a drought has gripped the southeast, particularly Georgia.

The decision is expected to allow Georgia to keep more water in north Georgia lakes, including Lanier, which provides metro Atlanta with most of its water. Despite recent rains, Lanier remains more than 13 feet below full pool and Corps engineers said it could drop more during the summer.

"Until Mother Nature gives us something better, we have to manage those conditions," said Brig. Gen. Joseph Schroedel of the Corps.

Meanwhile, some Georgia advocates complained the plan still doesn't allow the state to keep enough of its water. Pat Stevens of the Atlanta Regional Commission said it was only a "slight improvement."

"We need the Corps to put in a more balanced plan because the harm to the upstream users is tremendous," she said, noting the dwindling levels of north Georgia's Lake Lanier. "The economic harm is huge and we're going into the dry part of the year with the lake lower than its ever been."

While the Fish and Wildlife Service opinion validates the move to reduce flows to Alabama and Florida and keep more water upstream in Georgia, it also gives the states more breathing room to come to an agreement over how to share water rights after talks between their governors fell apart earlier this year.

The biological opinion is set to expire after five years and designed to bridge the gap until the three states can come up with their own agreement, said Sam D. Hamilton, the service's southeast regional director.

With no water pact, the Corps has had to play referee in the yearslong tri-state "water wars" over allocations from the region's two major river basins.

Both fisheries officials and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokesman complained that the water flows in Florida are being reduced while Georgia still isn't doing enough to restrict water use there. Some watering restrictions in that state were recently reduced, although outdoor watering is limited in much of north Georgia.

"Even more troubling is the expectation that, as outlined in the Service's Biological Opinion, municipal and industrial consumption will increase by 27 percent by 2017, further emphasizing the need to for Georgia to recognize its overall effect on the system and implement reasonable and prudent actions to better manage water resources," said Florida DEP Secretary Michael Sole.

Kevin Begos, a spokesman for oystermen and other seafood industry workers in Franklin County, Fla., said harvests haven't been as bad as feared yet but he fears they will be with lower flows. He also expressed concern that the entire river, bay and nearshore Gulf ecosystem doesn't seem to be being considered by federal officials, who have focused only on the four species in danger.


Associated Press Writer Greg Bluestein in Atlanta contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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