Interview with Bob Kerr
Director, Pollution Prevention Assistance Division, Georgia Department of Natural Resources (speaking to reporter Joshua Azriel in June, 1999)
Reporter Josh Azriel - I'm here with Robert Kerr. Please tell me your official title.
Kerr - I am the director of the pollution prevention assistance division of the department of natural resources in Georgia.
Reporter Josh Azriel - You are also the top negotiator for the tri-state compact issues?
Kerr - That is correct. The governor is the commissioner under the compacts. I am the alternate to the governor and Harold Reeheis is my alternate. I principally handle the strategy slash policy development. Mr. Reeheis principally handles the technical side.
Reporter Josh Azriel - How did you get appointed to this position?
Kerr - The governor appointed me. I am not sure what I did to him, but he appointed me.
Reporter Josh Azriel - As of right now, where do the negotiations between the 3 states stand?
Kerr - We are having a series of what we call technical meetings where each of the three states is trying to understand exactly what the models and proposals of the other 2 states mean and that is a foundation for any course of negotiations.
Reporter Josh Azriel - What originally brought on the compact negotiations?
Kerr - Well it depends on who you talk to as to what brought it on. Our interpretation of it is that when Georgia needed to reallocate water at Lake Lanier, in order to meet the growing demands of the population, the change would mean that there would be less storage for peak hydropower and more storage for water supply. The core of engineers determined that if they were going to reallocate, go through that process, for Lanier, they might as well do it for Allatoona and Carters Lakes in the ACT which is the Alabama Coosa Tallapoosa basin by the way so that they could do it one time. There was also a fourth, if you will, event which was Georgia's desire to create a reservoir in West Georgia on the Tallapoosa River that would be fairly small but serve the demands in the Tallapoosa basin in Georgia. As a result of those activities, Alabama challenged the Corp of engineers in the courts on the veracity or credibility or validity, pick a word that you like of the NEPA process relative to those post authorization changes.
Reporter Josh Azriel - One of the things I understand about this issue is that Georgia has a growing need for water, there is the growth in metro Atlanta, essentially the metro area is 13 counties with continued expansion. Down south there is a drought going on, the farmers need more water, is it possible to come up with an allocation formula when there is such growth going on in one state and yet where I come from in Florida they want to be able to maintain certain water levels for the oyster industry?
Kerr - Keep in mind that Florida is actually smaller than Georgia. Florida's projected growth is something like 25 million people, Georgia's is 13 million people. So, there is a tremendous demand in the metro Atlanta area and that is either 10 counties, 13 counties, or 20 counties depending on how you are defining the metro Atlanta area. Also keep in mind the Chattahoochee River, which is the principle source of drinking water for the metropolitan Atlanta area, is very small above Atlanta, it only drains above Lake Lanier about a thousand square miles. Keep in mind also the ACF which is the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, Flint is about 19 thousand square miles so we're not talking about a whole lot of water in terms of the basin. And that demand is going to grow enough that it is likely the Chattahoochee Lanier complex is not going to be able to meet that demand and Georgia will have to get water supplied from elsewhere for the metro Atlanta area. Can we get an agreement? We hope so because what we are looking at is what we consider to be a reasonable use and a reasonable return of the waters that we use some 200 plus miles north of Apalachicola Bay. And that we don't anticipate that the activities in the metro Atlanta area are going to have that material effect down there. Certainly in the Flint where we are looking at a very high demand for agricultural withdrawals and that is principally a consumptive use is going to have some effect on the ability to provide water downstream in the high demand period of roughly May, June, July perhaps part of August during drought periods. Again though we think there is enough flow going to be in the Apalachicola River, Apalachicola Bay that there is not going to be a significant environmental effect. Unfortunately, at this point no one has come forward and given us a reasonable explanation of what they consider to be harm that will occur in the Apalachicola River and Bay if we continue our growth.
Reporter Josh Azriel - Do you think the 3 states will be able to meet the deadline of December 31st on time? What do you think the chances are for an agreement?
Kerr - Well I would say the three states are a considerable distance apart in their interpretation of reality and what can be done and should be done. The states of Alabama and Florida do not need an agreement in the sense that if they don't get an agreement their not going to get any water. We're going to be providing water downstream, we have obligations within our own state, we'll meet those obligations and both the states of Alabama and Florida will benefit from that.
Reporter Josh Azriel - I've heard the term interstate water wars do you think that is an accurate way of putting this?
Kerr - Well it's certainly a label that's caught on. There is a dispute about who has access, reasonable access to these waters. The term equitable apportionment which is what the allocation formula is supposed to do is a term that embodies through out it the idea of fairness. And we think the state of Georgia has a right to the use of waters that fall within the state originate within the state and flow out of the state and when we look at the percentages that Georgia would use or consume compared to what the other states would receive out of Georgia plus all that they have of their own, we certainly think we have a fair proposal on the table for them to consider.
Reporter Josh Azriel - What do you think is making the negotiations difficult,? What is it Alabama and Florida are telling you that are slowing things down?
Kerr - Well, the concept of certainty and sovereignty are important to Georgia. On the sovereignty issue we need the ability to have real flexibility in how we meet our needs in the future. We can project all we want to about what's going to happen in 2030 and 2050 and so forth but the truth is nobody knows. And what we want to be able to do is have enough flexibility in the formula to allow us to respond to the differing demands while still meeting the commitment that we have for a range of flows at the line.
Florida simply wants us to agree to an ongoing evaluation for about 10 years and a growth out to 2010 and then if we can't reach agreement we cut off any additional growth out of the system, well obviously 10 years of certainty is not sufficient, so that's the major problem there. Major difference with Alabama is that Alabama would continue to like to use these reservoirs for peak hydropower and to support navigation down stream in Apalachicola River and Bay and we think navigation is a very high demand consumptive user of water where water supply is much more important and we see a trade off that says water supply is the more desirable use than navigation, and they simply don't appear to agree with us at this stage.
Reporter Josh Azriel - When your in the negotiation room is it one on one, between the three of you is it one on one or do you come with your staffs, how does it work?
Kerr - Well it's probably one of the most insane ways to do negotiations that you could ever hope to talk about. The demands of the public are such that all of these negotiations sessions are open to the public and at any given time there may be as many as 50 to 150 stake holder groups or representatives of stake holder groups in the audience hanging on to every word we say so it makes it extremely difficult to talk about what ifs, "what if we do this, will you do that" kind of thing. The negotiation itself becomes difficult so there's more of a statement of positions this is our position what's your position. Well why don't you like our position approach then there is a real one on one kind of negotiation to the extent it is one on one or to the extent of your question is it one on one yes we all bring staff we have our technical people etc. because questions come up that may involve a model and how that model was run, what the assumptions were and so forth, we need to have the technical staff on hand to answer that.
Reporter Josh Azriel - It sounds like these are open to the public, it's not a matter of we are sitting in a conference room right now. You bring your people, I bring my people, Alabama brings their people and we hash this out over an afternoon, it doesn't sound like it goes on this way.
Kerr - No it doesn't, it goes on in the glare of public scrutiny. And sometimes I think if we could just simply go off and lock ourselves in a hotel room for 3 or 4 days we might make a whole lot of progress.
Reporter Josh Azriel - Would it be legal to do something like that, to have an informal weekend up here in Atlanta to get together an work on this?
Kerr - No, Florida has a very stringent sunshine law that pretty much dictates that anything that they do is a public meeting. And in the operating guidelines there is a requirement for open meetings. I don't want to over overstate the difficulty of that, I'm just saying that it does make it a different kind of session than if we could just as you point out lock ourselves in a room and do it.
Reporter Josh Azriel - But the public they don't during these meeting raise their hands and make comments, or are they just there to observe?
Kerr - They're there to observe but we do try to allow them an opportunity to make comments, we do not engage in discussion with them and try to respond to their comments and so forth, they can make the comments and we duly note them but uh and there's a specified time for them to do that but other than that they do not participate.
Reporter Josh Azriel - Obviously, having been to Apalachicola twice, they are very concerned about this issue down there what is the public attitude that you have found on these water issues up here in N. Georgia?
Kerr - I think the predominant view point is that they don't understand what is going on. Why in the world would Fl. and Alabama be trying to tell Georgia they can't use the water that falls in Georgia. It just doesn't make any sense to them. They think they have a right to the reasonable use of that and their perception is at least in Alabama's case is their using this a way to try to slow down Georgia's growth. Now whether that is true or not that's a perception.
Reporter Josh Azriel - If the negotiations fail by the deadline, take me through what the next process is either legally or legislatively.
Kerr - If the negotiations fail by the deadline by the way the deadline is in early October because we have a 60 day public comment period, we don't even have the luxury going in...we have to have the formal agreement by Dec. 31st but in order to give something to the public to comment on we have to have it by October.
Reporter Josh Azriel - For a rough draft.
Kerr - Right. Any number of things could happen. One, the states could agree to extend the negotiations period. Two, the states could agree to end it and it all go away. There'd be no compacts etc. Then each state would have to make a determination of what action they want to take. Maybe all the states have learned enough by then that they decide to take no action what so ever and everybody goes home about their business. Or anyone of the states could engage in some sort of legal action and that legal action could take all sorts of forms. Alabama could sue the Corp again if the Corp were to decide to reallocate waters in one of these three reservoirs, it would have to find perhaps a different basis on which to do it because we've done EIS's at this point, we've done comprehensive studies all the information's there. Florida might decide to sue Georgia to force it to change its agricultural practices or something. If that were to happen, you wind up in U.S. Supreme Court. So, the options for what happens if we don't get an agreement are almost endless in their permutations.
Reporter Josh Azriel - What are the chances the federal government would directly step in and try and resolve this themselves, do they have the power to do that?
Kerr - No. They might have the power to make suggestions but the waters are the waters of the state they don't belong to the federal government.
Reporter Josh Azriel - So they don't have the power to appoint a special person to be an arbitrator?
Kerr - They may try to convince the states to extend the negotiating period and have an arbitrator come in but the compacts don't call for arbitration they call for mediation and its non-binding.
Reporter Josh Azriel - What is the current state of the Chattahoochee River? Right now what is the state of the water quality, the flow, etc.?
Kerr - There have been some water quality issues relevant to metro Atlanta and the discharges from metro Atlanta. Those have been addressed have been under scrutiny and the city of Atlanta has been fined as everyone knows. They've made major efforts to invest a lot of money into cleaning up the combined storm sewer overflow facilities. Gwinnett County is going to state of the art waste water treatment. I think the water quality is improving not degrading. And we have committed in the compacts themselves that all the water quality laws will be met. So we will have to meet and do that.
Reporter Josh Azriel - What is the state of the Flint River right now. I know there's a drought going on in S. Georgia similar to the drought in Florida.
Kerr - Well there's a drought going all the way across Georgia by the way even in North Georgia. We've already imposed some water restrictions in metro Atlanta area. One of the things that is interesting about this process is that there's so much that is not known about the interaction of the surface water and the ground water in that S.W. Georgia and upper Florida system. This drought is going to tell us a great deal about whether our models are right or wrong and we will probably know by August as to whether or not there is the crisis that some people anticipate or if in fact it is not that big a deal. But there is a drought in S.W. Georgia, water levels are lower than almost anytime in recorded history.
Reporter Josh Azriel - Your talking about the Flint River water?
Kerr - Flint River water levels and some of the feeder tributaries. The aquifer is down more than we would anticipate this time of the year, and the farmers are pumping. But the interesting thing is some the low levels in the Flint River were there before the farmers started pumping.
Reporter Josh Azriel - If they were there before the farmers started pumping, how far back does this go the farmers pumping out of the river?
Kerr - Most of them probably started trying to put something in the ground in May time frame, there was perhaps some irrigation prior to that but the bulk of that would begin in the May time frame, May June.
Reporter Josh Azriel - It sounds like the problems of drought were there before the farmers, is there a danger of the river being irreversibly harmed by this?
Kerr - Irreversibly harmed no I don't think so. Certainly there is a danger if it is through this act of nature or act of God if you prefer that there is a drought of proportions we've never seen before. Certainly there is the possibility that some of the species in the system will be harmed and how long it will take them to recover is a whole other question that I don't have an answer to. Irreversible? No I don't think so.
Reporter Josh Azriel - My final question to you is for the listener of public radio in Florida who will be listening to this show when it is put together what is the message you would like them to understand about Georgia's overall concerns with water allocation?
Kerr - Well you use a term our concerns. We don't have a lot of concerns relative to Florida itself. We do have some public policy issues that will have to deal with internally because of our growth. And we think dealing with those public policy issues will in fact insure there is reasonable amount of water crossing the border and going into the Apalachicola River out of Lake Seminole. And we want them to understand that it is not our intent nor do we think we could under existing laws in anyway harm the Apalachicola River and Bay to the point some people we think we would.
Reporter Josh Azriel - You are confident whatever formula is eventually agreed to the Apalachicola River and Bay will remain healthy?
Kerr - We are confident that Georgia's actions are not going to keep it from being healthy. We are not sure about what Florida is doing. So I can't make that kind of commitment, we do know that there is just one company in that upper panhandle that is looking at divesting themselves of something on the order of perhaps as much as three quarters of a million acres that will then be developed. I'm not sure what that is going to do the Apalachicola Bay and River.