Negotiators in the decade-old water dispute involving Alabama, Georgia and Florida have agreed to yet another deadline extension for ending their talks, marking the third such extension since December and the sixth extension since negotiations began in February 1998.

June 15 is the new target date for devising a water-sharing formula that will satisfy the states' competing interests in two large river basins.

Any final agreement likely will affect crop irrigation in the three states. If negotiations collapse, state officials expect that a court will be asked to decide how the water is divided.

Georgia's top negotiator, Bob Kerr, says that the states agreed to extend the deadline because of improving prospects that some issues are near resolution. Since December, Florida State University President Sandy D'Alemberte has mediated the negotiations, bringing the parties closer together, says Kerr.

“I believe in the final analysis, everyone is going to be happy, or at least equally sad,” says Kerr.

Alabama and Florida have argued that Georgia takes too much water from two river basins — the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) — that flow into the neighboring states.

Georgia and Alabama already have agreed to a tentative settlement for sharing the waters of the ACT basin, but that could be undone if negotiations over the other basin fail to reach a successful conclusion.

“Our situation is that we haven been in substantial agreement with Georgia over both of these river basins since the middle of December,” says Jim Campbell, Alabama's chief negotiator. “The biggest problem was resolving the differences between Florida and Georgia over the Chattahoochee River basin.”

Ted Hosp, legal counsel for Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, says he is satisfied with the agreement with Georgia. “We're going to make sure Alabama's interests are protected. At this point, the draft that we have seen protects Alabama's interests,” says Hosp.

Meanwhile, representatives from both environmental and farm groups already are criticizing the water agreements. “The credibility of this process is approaching zero,” says Matt Kales of the Tri-State Conservation Coalition and the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeepers. “When the product finally emerges, a lot of folks, and not just tree huggers like ourselves, are going to have a problem with it.”

The tentative agreement reached between Alabama and Georgia over the ACT river basin will have an impact on farmers' access to water resources, according to a representative of the Alabama Farmers Federation.

The agreement would require Alabama to establish a water permitting policy for farmers and other small businesses, says Paul Pinyan, director of agricultural legislation for the Federation. Georgia already has such a policy.

“The agreement lays out the framework for water resource management between the two states by creating an ACT Committee with oversight and monitoring responsibilities,” says Pinyan. “That means Alabama will have to develop regulations that dictate how much water an individual can withdraw from the basin, and establish reporting procedures for water use.”

A Water Quantity Issues Workgroup was formed to study the provisions of the agreement and develop recommendations for permitting and monitoring. Pinyan says the Federation is helping to identify stakeholders who will meet with the workgroup to insure that farmers' needs are adequately addressed.

“We're encouraging the workgroup to consider all possible solutions to the competing demands for water before saddling farmers with costly regulations,” adds Pinyan. “While we agree that a long-term plan is needed to manage water use, we're concerned that additional reporting requirements could interfere with farmers being able to irrigate their crops and water their livestock.”

Because urban residents outnumber those in rural areas, Pinyan says city dwellers likely will get water before farmers do if another drought forces the state to restrict use. As recently as last summer, greenhouse and nursery operations near Birmingham lost thousands of dollars when they were forced to stop watering their plants because of a water shortage.

The 30-year ACT agreement, which must be approved by federal agencies and the governors of both states, would reduce water flow in the three-river system during wet seasons and increase flow during drier times. It also would require the ACT Committee to develop a drought plan for the basin within two years. It is unclear whether the new regulations for permitting and monitoring would require legislative action.