Settlement talks ordered in Florida-Georgia battle over water

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ATLANTA (AP)-- A court official on Tuesday ordered attorneys for Florida and Georgia to try again to settle a yearslong dispute over water use in the region.

Special Master Ralph Lancaster gave the states until Jan. 24 to meet and encouraged them to use a mediator. He also ordered the states to file a confidential report to him by Jan. 26 summarizing their efforts to reach a settlement.

The dispute focuses on a watershed in western Georgia, eastern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. The Chattahoochee and Flint rivers flow through Georgia and meet at the Florida border to form the Apalachicola River, which flows into the Apalachicola Bay. Alabama isn't directly involved in this case but has sided with Florida, encouraging a cap on Georgia's use.

After Florida filed the suit against Georgia, Lancaster was appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court to make a recommendation. The Supreme Court has the final say. Lancaster has repeatedly urged the states to settle, particularly at the end of a monthlong trial held in November in his home city of Portland, Maine.

Representatives for Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal didn't immediately respond Wednesday to requests for comment. Katie McCreary, a spokeswoman for Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, declined comment, citing the ongoing case.

Florida blames rapid growth in metropolitan Atlanta and agriculture in south Georgia for causing low river flows that have imperiled fisheries dependent on fresh water entering the area. Georgia has argued that Florida didn't prove its water use is to blame for the low flows and says a cap will damage the state's economy.

In Tuesday's order, Lancaster said the states "should consider solutions that could alleviate both parties' concerns, including importation of water from outside the ACF River Basin to supplement streamflow during drought periods."

The area is commonly known as the "ACF River Basin."