Plentiful rainfall continued throughout most of the Southeast during the early weeks of spring, with many farmers saying they were entering the 2009 planting season with their best moisture in at least three years.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor’s mid-May report, most abnormally dry conditions have been alleviated with the exception of a few small pockets in the Carolinas and northeast Georgia. Drought conditions also continue to plague a large part of Florida with the exception of the Panhandle, where the majority of row crops is grown.

In Georgia, Lake Lanier and Lake Hartwell basins have improved to mild drought condition, according to David Stooksbury, state climatologist. The basins were previously in moderate drought.

The remainder of the state, he adds, is drought-free. “Soil moisture conditions are above normal for the entire state except the north-central and northeast mountain counties. Soil moisture in these regions was near normal for early May. These counties include the drainage basins for Lanier and Hartwell,” says Stooksbury.

Stream flows are near normal for early May except for northwest Georgia, where stream flows are well above normal, he says.

May is typically one of the drier months in Georgia, notes Stooksbury. “Additionally, with high temperatures routinely in the 80s and plant water use very high, moisture loss is accelerated. We normally expect the soils to start to dry out this month,” he says.

Progressing through the summer into the middle of fall, moisture loss from the soil — due to evaporation and plant use — is normally greater than rainfall. “With normal weather over the next several months, Georgians can expect to see a drying of the soils. However, this is normal and does not mean Georgia is heading back into a drought,” says Stooksbury.

While the Southeastern drought appears to have lifted, at least temporarily, Alabama, Georgia and Florida continue to squabble over the allocation of water resources.

In the latest round of the tri-state “water war,” a federal judge in May complained that a protracted battle over three states’ claim to water flowing from a reservoir near Atlanta has been taking place in “never-never land.”

U.S. District Judge Paul Manguson is attempting to settle 19 years of litigation between the three states over water from Lake Lanier, Atlanta’s water supply. Florida and Alabama want to increase the amount of water released from Lanier to benefit downstream power plants, farms and other businesses in their states.

Manguson, who came from Minnesota to hear the case, did not say when he would rule on the legality of water supply allocations by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But he criticized the Corps for its part in the delays.

“The Corps has been sitting on this,” Manguson said near the end of a four-hour hearing after being told an environmental impact study would take another three years.

“It is a situation that cannot be permitted to function in this never-never land that it is in,” he told Ruth Ann Storey, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney representing the Corps.

Storey told the judge there was no action in the case for almost a dozen years because the states were trying to work out an agreement on their own.

The dispute centers on how much water the Army Corps of Engineers holds back in federal reservoirs near the head of the Chattahoochee and Flint river basins in north Georgia. The rivers flow south into Florida and Alabama, where they form to become the Apalachicola River.

The fast-growing Atlanta region relies on the lakes for drinking water, while Florida and Alabama depend on healthy flows downstream for commercial fisheries, farms, industrial users and municipalities. The Corps also is required to release adequate flows to ensure habitats for species protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Parker Thomson, an attorney representing Florida, argued that the Corps in supplying an increasing amount of water to Atlanta was violating rules which require the Corps to get approval from Congress.

“There has been a major operational change. There has been no consent from Congress,” he argued.

Patricia Barmeyer, representing Georgia, urged Manguson not to be influenced by an appeals court ruling in favor of Florida and Alabama.

“We urge you to resist the calls from Alabama and Florida that there is nothing for you to do in this case,” she said.

Matt Lembke, an attorney representing Alabama, argued the Corps of Engineers had failed to comply with the Water Supply Act.

Many of the arguments centered on actions when the dam was being planned in 1946. Florida and Alabama argued the dam was built for hydroelectric power, flood control and navigation, while Georgia argued the reservoir was built as a water supply for the Atlanta area.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com