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KAI RYSSDAL: There's a chance of rain in Atlanta Christmas Day. That's not ordinarily something locals would be pleased with. But the persistent drought in the Southeast will probably make a rainshower or two a welcome present. The governors of Georgia, Florida and Alabama held a meeting in Florida today trying to resolve a fight over ever-shorter water supplies. There was no hard progress to report, but they did announce that they'll meet again in mid-February. And they've promised to make peace by then. Marketplace's Nancy Marshall-Genzer explains how things got so bad.
NANCY MARSHALL GENZER: Water is everyone's lifeblood. It nourishes crops, livestock and people. Now states that once took it for granted are parched. Northern Georgia never built its own state reservoir system and is now suffering through its worst drought in at least 20 years. Critics say Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue still doesn't have a plan. Instead, he prayed for rain in a highly publicized outdoor service.
GOV. SONNY PERDUE: God, we need you. We need rain. Thank you, Lord, for the rain to come. Amen.
The rains did come. Of course, the governor's timing was fortuitous -- showers were in the forecast. The rain didn't put a dent in the drought, though. And Georgia hasn't put mandatory restrictions on big water users like Coca-Cola bottling plants. The state has limited the amount of water that consumers can use in the Atlanta area. In September, Georgia banned outdoor watering. Hotlines were set up so people could tattle on their neighbors.
CALLERS ON HOTLINE: They had a hose running the whole time and I think it's a gross violation.... They're watering the front entrance every morning.... The water was running into the street. The sprinklers were going.
Georgia's problems have spilled over into Alabama and Florida. Georgia's Lake Lanier reservoir feeds the rivers that flow to Georgia's neighbors. The reservoir is also Atlanta's prime water source. The Army Corps of Engineers controls how much reservoir water flows downstream. Georgia says the Corps is releasing too much. Alabama and Florida want more. It's a food fight -- over water.
CHICK KRAUTLER: Everybody has lawsuits against everybody else.
Chick Krautler heads the Atlanta Regional Commission, the city planning agency in charge of water use.
KRAUTLER: There are five different lawsuits in four different courts that are all very complicated and none of them are making any progress.
Georgia says it has to balance water restrictions with the needs of Atlanta's growing population and booming economy. But Alabama argues it needs water for the Farley Nuclear Power Plant.
On one day in September 44,000 gallons of water per minute from the Chatahoochee River cycled through the plant.
Downstream, oysterman Johnny Richards has worked Florida's Apalachicola Bay for more than 50 years. He says he's hauling fewer oysters onto his boat this year.
JOHNNY RICHARDS: The fresh water coming down is like blood in our bodies. It's coming down the bay to sustain life in the bay -- not only oysters -- fish, crab, shrimp, depends on the river flow. Without the fresh water our bay will die.
When the balance of salinity to fresh water goes out of whack, oyster predators thrive. The Sunshine State needs fresh water for both wildlife and tourism. And it's aggressively protected its water resources. It doesn't allow developers to build until they prove there's enough water for new houses. But the state is still vulnerable when it comes to a lack of planning by neighbors like Georgia. Judith Curry of the Georgia Institute of Technology says other states need to learn from Georgia's mistakes.
JUDITH CURRY: I hope this serves as a wake-up call that each state needs to have a good plan and there is a need for some federal involvement in order to deal with these interstate wars that are inevitable.
Curry expects the next water wars to break out among other Southeastern states more used to hurricanes than drought. Usually lush Virginia and North Carolina are dry right now. One town in Tennessee is so parched its mayor is trucking in water.
I'm Nancy Marshall Genzer, for Marketplace.