Georgia, Florida and Alabama appear to be one step closer to achieving an agreement in the tri-state “water war” they have waged for more than a decade.

Negotiators agreed “in principle” last month to a formula for dividing among the three states water from the three rivers whose basin they share: the Apalachicola, the Flint and the Chattahoochee. Georgia and Alabama — neighbors across much of the Chattachoochee — both want water for further growth.

Florida wants enough water to insure the health of the fishery and oyster beds in the Apalachicola River and Bay, which is fed by both the Flint and the Chattahoochee.

The states' negotiators, who met at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources in Atlanta, set a March 18 deadline for working out the wording of the pact. If it is accepted by all parties, a 60-day comment period will follow, with public hearings in all three states.

The negotiations over water use officially began in 1998, after years of rancor.

Talks on another front in the water war — the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basin, have been extended to January of 2003. Georgia and Alabama are involved in those negotiations.

“We've spent four yearS trying to get to this point,” says Harold Reheis, director of Georgia's Environmental Protection Division and one of the negotiators. “For Georgia, what's important is that we've got some certainty of the water supply we can expect from the Chattahoochee and Lake Lanier.”