`Water wars' talks granted extension Georgia, Alabama and Florida have agreed to extend negotiations over shared waterways for a fourth time, until Dec. 30, with negotiators saying they expect their governors to be more involved in future talks.

Deadline passed Aug. 1 was the latest deadline for reaching an agreement. But with the states still far apart on agreeing to a formula for sharing the waters in rivers flowing through the tri-state region, there was little hope of reaching a settlement.

Negotiators expect their governors - Roy Barnes of Georgia, Don Siegelman of Alabama and Jeb Bush of Florida - to become more involved in the talks. "They really are the ones who will have to settle this," said Jim Campbell, Alabama's chief negotiator.

Statements issued by Barnes and Siegelman said that the governors are hopeful agreements can be reached. They also said that seeking the help of a mediator to help break a stalemate in the negotiations remains an option.

Alabama, Georgia At issue between Alabama and Georgia is the water in the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basin. Georgia, Alabama and Florida are discussing the Apalachicola-Flint-Chattahoochee river basin. Much of Georgia's irrigated farmland is located in the Flint River basin.

Had negotiators walked away from the bargaining table on July 31 without extending the deadline, the case most likely would have landed in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Clinton administration's appointed monitor in the talks, former U.S. Rep. Lindsay Thomas of Georgia, said he was glad to see the extension. "I've never had any concern about the pace," said Thomas.

Thomas also said he was not concerned that the extension was aimed at delaying a decision until after the November general election. While the three first-term governors are in the middle of their terms, a change at the White House possibly could affect the talks.

Changes seen The two water basins in question cover 40,000 square miles of Southeastern properties, says Thomas. In addition to a limited water supply for a burgeoning population, the situation is further complicated by the changes that urban growth have made to the landscape.

Thomas warns that more rainfall won't cure the problem because urban growth has caused more forests to be cut, and developers have paved more surfaces, causing changes in natural water runoff patterns. Adequate water flow into the marsh estuarine systems on Florida's Gulf Coast is crucial to maintaining the health and vitality of Florida's coast, says Thomas.

"You can't come into this with the attitude that this is my land and my water and I'll do whatever I want with it. In the end, it is us who will steward this water for future generations to come," he said.