Florida officials have agreed to extend water-sharing talks with Alabama and Georgia, reversing an earlier decision to stop negotiations on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin. Both the deadline and the mediation agreement were extended to May 1, 2001, says Doug Barr, who represents Florida in the talks.

Late last year, Florida officials had been prepared to stop negotiations on the water allocation formula for the three rivers. Since then, says Barr, there have been indications that an agreement might still be possible.

"We felt it would be productive to continue discussions," says Barr. "State officials want to make every effort to reach an agreement, keeping Florida's environmental concerns in mind."

Some of the sticking points of the negotiations, he says, center on the operation of federal reservoirs, the duration of the agreement and the flow of water under extreme drought conditions. But, he adds, given the importance of the issue, "it's certainly worthwhile to continue discussions."

Georgia and Alabama already have agreed to a tentative settlement in the other front of the water war - sharing the waters of the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa Basin or ACT. The settlement, however, is contingent on Alabama and Georgia agreeing with Florida on the water-sharing formula for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint or ACF River Basin.

In negotiations over the ACT River Basin, which runs from north Georgia to Mobile Bay, Alabama initially had wanted a 50-year agreement. However, Alabama agreed to Georgia's request for a shorter agreement of 30 years due to the difficulties of predicting growth in the region.

The agreement caps the amount of water that could be taken out of the river basin and pumped to the Atlanta area at 75 million gallons per day in the first 10 years, 90 million gallons per day in the second decade and 100 million gallons per day in the final 10 years. This is less than Georgia originally had wanted.

In addition, Georgia could go ahead with plans for a West Georgia Regional Reservoir, but Alabama would be guaranteed a flow of 25 percent of the average annual daily flow out of the reservoir, regardless of the flow into the reservoir. Alabama officials contend this would help Lake Martin on the Alabama side maintain a higher level during droughts and protect recreation on the popular lake.

Under the tentative plan, the water flow from Georgia on the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers would be less than normal during the wettest periods and higher than normal in the driest times.

Once the governors of Georgia and Alabama endorse the ACT settlement, it will be sent out for a 60-day public review and comment period. After that, various federal agencies will have 255 days to review the plan. If they reject it, the interstate water compact under which the states have negotiated a settlement will dissolve and the only alternative left to the states will be court action.

Under the two federal interstate water compacts that set the rules for the negotiations, the states give a 14-day public notice before holding a bargaining session. However, the states can meet in emergency sessions to extend deadlines.