(March 4, 5:05 p.m.) After six months of drought-spurred negotiations and intervention in the talks by U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, the states of Alabama, Georgia and Florida failed to reach a compromise on water rights.

The silver lining for retail and foodservice is that most grower-shippers in the tri-state area do not need the water to produce sweet corn, tomatoes, watermelons and other commodities.

“I don’t think it (the failed talks) will have much effect on the produce producer,” said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Assoc., La Grange, Ga. “It could have a major effect on residential water supplies.”

ONGOING ARGUMENT

The three states have been at odds for about 15 years over the water rights in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basins, Hall said. The river basins run south through Georgia into Alabama and the Florida panhandle, where it also appears the failed talks will not affect grower-shippers.

“All of the irrigation water for vegetables in Florida comes from wells,” said Dan Raulerson, director of marketing and trade for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Assoc., Maitland, Fla. “None of it comes from open water sites.”

The river basin water talks focused primarily on municipal and industrial use. To serve the city’s growing population, Georgia is trying to retain more water in reservoirs near Atlanta, Hall said.

Florida and Alabama officials claim their states could suffer because Georgia failed to plan adequately for Atlanta’s growth.

The vast majority of grower-shippers in south Georgia, where the bulk of the state’s vegetables are grown, use wells for irrigation water, Hall said.

“We do have some growers that are pulling water out of the Flint River,” he said.

LAST FALL’S DROUGHT

It was last fall’s record drought that was the catalyst for President George Bush to direct Secretary Kempthorne to try to settle the ongoing water rights dispute.

Negotiators had imposed a Feb. 15 deadline for a settlement. When that date passed without an agreement, the states’ governors agreed to continue talking until March 1.

That’s when Kempthorne revealed the talks had failed.

In a letter to the three governors released March 1, Kempthorne said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies would begin implementing a federal water-sharing plan.