Interview with Lindsey ThomasFederal Commissioner of the ACT - ACF River Basin Commission (speaking with reporter Joshua Azriel)
Thomas - There was some concern by Alabama about the way the water in the reservoirs here in the state were being divided up. There was some interbasin transfers of water and some reallocation of waters in reservoirs and that led Alabama to bring a suit against Georgia. Keep in mind that the waters of both of these river basins rise in the state of Georgia. In the case of the ACF it flows down the river between of course Georgia, Florida, Georgia and Alabama and then into Florida into Lake Seminole, the Flint, the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee form Seminole and then it flows into the Apalachicola River. In the case of the ACT - the Alabama, Coosatalapoosa those waters rise in Georgia and flow into Alabama. But anyhow those suits were brought that led to a number of years of um of real disagreements, a lot of animosity about things and uh that ticked on for a while and so the decision was made to try to do something about it. And so legislation was passed, they began a comprehensive study during that time and there was legislation passed at the federal and state level that set up these compacts without an allocation formula. In other words, the compacts were set up so that the three states in the case of the ACF and two states in the case of the ACT could come together to try to solve and settle their differences and to agree to share information and to wisely manage and steward the waters in these rivers, that's what the hope was. First major compact east of the Mississippi and so the negotiations began then uh year before, last year, last year was when they really began. The compacts call for the negotiators to be the governors of the three states or their designees, of course they designate people, the governors don't go to all the meetings and their negotiators go negotiate for them, and they have technical people to back them up and so forth. On the federal side to represent the federal interest, they appointed a federal commissioner, you have listed on those lists you have the three governors then you have the federal commissioner.
Now the way that came about was I assume that in Washington where they were talking about it because I was not familiar with it my name was put in the ring by some people that knew me from Interior and knew that my interest in wetlands and my prior experience and interest in natural resource issues when I was in the Congress and so one day I simply got a call and it was from a person who had been in the White House and said and was hooked up at the White House and said your name's been put in the hat for this.
Azriel - Do you know who that person was?
Thomas - Yeah, I don't think that is important. It was just a person who at one time had been at the White House staff and was back here in Georgia and said your name's been put back in the ring and are you interested and I said yes. So that began the process. The president, it was his nomination, there was no real fight about that any of the time. I think where my name rose was over in Interior from some folks I worked with when I was over there.
They saw this and knew it was in my neck of the woods and knew what I was doing which was head of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce that's my official job, state wide business group of business people here who comprise the Georgia chamber. I told them clearly what I did when I was first contacted by the White House by a lady named Marie Teris Dominguez who contacted me first in the White House to get the ball rolling. Told her what I did and so forth and she said we'd still like you in it. So I said send me this description let me read it. When I read it I saw clearly what it called for, first thing was obvious. The federal commissioner would have to be an objective, completely objective individual and his job would be to steward the efforts of what was being put together an inter-agency working group of 8 or 9 federal agencies, from of course your major players: the Corp of engineers, the EPA, Interior, parks interior, fish and wildlife, SEPA - Southeast Power Administration -, NOAH, USGS, I think I probably named them all there. To work with that group, to be at all meetings that we wish to attend, there could be no negotiating meetings or no other meetings without our presence but we didn't have a vote.
It was not our job to make proposals, those are the states, they are doing the negotiations. Our job was to be there to provide information and watch as this thing evolved to raise concerns if we saw areas you know we felt were being neglected or whatever. And to be prepared through that progress at the end of the process if an allocation formula was agreed to for me with the advice of my agencies and the people I was working with to then be prepared to sign a letter of consent, it's called a letter of concurrence or non-concurrence to what the findings were within a period of 255 days and sign off on it. Now there's some wiggle room in there like 220 or 210 days we can send them a letter back and say there's problem here and do some renegotiations but within 255 days we have to either concur on not concur after the allocation formula is agreed to.
Azriel - If you send a letter of concurrence what then happens?
Thomas - Well as we all understand it, it is approved and the allocation formula is agreed to and the federal government signed off on it and we're in business.
Azriel - By federal government signing off on it is that the Congress the President directly, the Supreme Court who?
Thomas - I think what's happened is and the way we understand it is literally that is the federal government's concurrence, I mean there is nothing further to be done if everybody agrees unless there is some serious alteration in federal law that everybody agrees to but that's an unforeseen development in my opinion.
Azriel - So you are the federal government?
Thomas - Well there's still some debate about that but yes I am appointed by the president to make this decision.
Azriel - So if you agree then as far as the federal government is concerned
it is approved?
Thomas- We acquiesce to the agreement and we watch the processes go. You see the fail-safe mechanism here is that you got to have a unanimous vote by the three states, they got to all agree first. So you obviously have to have not only state concurrence but I would think you've got powerful federal delegations involved in all three states. And if constituents within those states raise concerns about what is being agreed to there will be public comment period. Then at that time the federal government, would certainly, I think the federal people in the states are watching these issues they have their people there and I think there will be some interplay there but thatís for each state to determine whether or not, they are making the decision absence of the federal concerns. But I think that is not the case because everyone understands the federal government is all over this thing they're involved in it and it can't be done in a vacuum without those concerns.
Azriel - If each of the states agree, does it go to each of the states' legislatures or directly to the governors for their signatures?
Thomas - They will agree on behalf of the governors, the governors will actually be the signatures. So that's once the governors sign off on it. The compacts have taken care of all that. You have legislation at the state and federal already they set up the compacts so they will work in that fashion.
Azriel - If the governors agree as far as the states are concerned it would automatically go to your approval?
Thomas - That's right, it'll be there for us. They'll send the allocation formula to me and we'll make our decision.
Azriel - What happens if you do not concur? Where does the process go from there?
Thomas - Well there's a period of about 45 days I think which is allowed if we are not in concurrence in which there can be some renegotiations and then if all of that failed and I simply issue a letter of non-concurrence then it is my understanding that the compacts are dead. That has to be done upon, it has to be an infraction of federal law in other words I just can't go in there and say that we 8 or 9 federal agencies don't like the looks of this thing, it would have to based on hard and factual law. I think you understand here that these federal agencies and everyone else, we're are in hopes that we can reach a consensus that brings everybody together because what this really does, and this is the interesting thing about it, it give the 3 states the opportunity to make their own determinations about these waters here to a great extent, how to manage them, how to steward them keeping it within the confines of existing federal law, clean water act, clean drinking act, those kinds of things and considering endangered species and all of that. So when you put that into it, this is a pretty, I'd call it a well balanced sort of system of checks and balances are at a play here after you've looked at it a long time you see it.
Azriel - How much time do you get to make your decision?
Thomas - Well it's two hundred, well we've got 255 days to issue our final letter of concurrence or non-concurrence after the agreement is signed, after the allocation formula agreement is reached.
Azriel - You are in a unique position because you get to see how each of the states are coming along in their negotiations, you sort of step outside and watch all this go on before your role comes into full, do you think they're going to do it by the deadline of December 31st?
Thomas - I think there is a chance it can be done. My personal opinion is that it's going to take, you know we have 3 new governors now and I don't know what the 3 governors are doing at this stage of the game and what talks or conversations, I think the 3 governors have to decide if they want this to happen and if they see a way to make it happen and they have to step into this process and say we want it to happen and if they say it will happen then it can happen. Now there's been a lot of stuff on the table, there's been a lot of information, a lot of proposals made and I think all 3 delegations of negotiators can go back to their governors at this time and tell them whether or not they see a deal that is workable for their states, help their governor come to that determination and it might be that they don't see that at this stage of the game. I don't want to second judge anybody here, I don't want to make any predictions that is not my job. I would say right now things are not moving like I would like to see them move if we are going to get to an agreement. And I think right now time is running out, this is the middle of the sixth month almost in the middle of the sixth month of the year. And really to get an agreement and have it enacted you see it 's got to come out sometime by October we're not talking about December it's got to come out by October in order to get the public comment period in. There is a track here of time and that will have to be plugged into this process and I think we are getting very close. Now last year was extended for a year. I'm asked often if you think they'll extend it if they don't get an agreement. I think that'll depend on whether or not people think if it's worth staying in this thing any longer if there some light at the end of the tunnel. And that you're asking me something I'd have to know everything that is going on in the minds of all 3 negotiators I certainly don't know that and don't want to second guess them.
Azriel - Are you aware of the plans of any of the governors to get actively involved in this?
Thomas - I am not.
Azriel - I am told that if you reject the agreement, it goes to the Supreme Court and it will appoint a reviewer of this, is this true?
Thomas - If the compacts fail and the suits are renewed, then yes we are back in the courts to settle the disputes between the states and then you are back before a federal judge.
Azriel - Is there anything you'd like to say about this before we go?
Thomas - No, you know, I guess to me, I 've looked at and my thinking is still is these 2 basins are very broad, big, far reaching river basin systems. You're talking about around 40,000 square miles between the two basins. A lot's going on, a lot's happening, there are a lot of federal projects, there's a lot of development, there's agricultural use, there are many multifaceted uses and concerns involved here.
But to me through all of that, I mean I have to say that I think that what the federal government would be most interested in, most of the people that I see, and I myself thinking from this position as federal commissioner that what I would like to see us do is look at maintaining the integrity of these systems, that means not just the flow of water but as near to the historical flows as we can accomplish in order to protect the aquatic bio- the systems, the living aquatic life so that we've got living, functioning systems for the foreseeable future for the future. And that's I think where is we should start there and then back into then ok what can we accommodate what we can use and so forth. But you've got to remember that in the end the waters rise in Georgia and there is a small basin up here in the upper part of this state and tremendous needs from municipal and industrial use here and that area on it and those are very strong driving and compelling forces. Same concerns for Florida and for Alabama and of course in the case of Florida and the ACF. What I see is the magnificent Apalachicola bay and the concern there you know is what about the quantity and quality of the water that reaches us and how will it therefore impact the future and integrity of this system. So everybody's got a great big stake in this.