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The state of Georgia wants Columbus Water Works to revise some language in a lawsuit the public utility plans to file in an attempt to safeguard Columbus' right to the Chattahoochee River's water. The suit to be filed in federal court against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seeks a guarantee that Columbus will get its fair share of water.

J. Barrington Vaught, the Water Works' local counsel in the suit, said the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and Gov. Sonny Perdue's office asked the Water Works in a June 22 telephone conference to change certain passages in the lawsuit.

Water Works is being represented by Atlanta law firm Alston & Bird. Vaught is a partner with Columbus-based Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis and Rothschild, which is representing Water Works locally.

Specifically, he said state officials were concerned about passages that can be construed as "anti-Atlanta" that allege the Corps is reserving water in Lake Lanier for municipalities near the lake, which the suit contends was not authorized by the congressional act that created the lake.

The state of Georgia is already a plaintiff in two water allocation lawsuits that have been merged with two other actions filed by Alabama and Florida. Water Works President Billy Turner and his lawyers have said those lawsuits do not focus on Columbus' particular water interests.

"The whole object of this is to try to draft a complaint that will work in harmony with the claims the state of Georgia has against the Corps of Engineers, rather than us appearing to be adverse to the interests of the state of Georgia and in particular the Atlanta area," he said.

Vaught said Water Works will change the wording of the lawsuit to try to satisfy the state.

"But at the same time we've got to continue to make certain allegations in the complaint to preserve the city's right to proceed with the lawsuit," he said.

Water Works was expected to return to Columbus Council last week asking for a resolution making the city a party in the lawsuit, which delayed the request until the the council's July 10 meeting due to the state's request, Vaught said. Columbus Council canceled its meeting for this week.

Water Works officials went before the 10-member council on June 19 requesting the resolution, but councilors asked for another week to review the lawsuit. Councilors also requested Water Works to contact Columbus' congressional delegation about the potential litigation.

Although Columbus's supply of drinking water isn't in peril, Turner has said dips in the flow could jeopardize Columbus' ability to discharge treated waste water in compliance with its state permit.

If the flow doesn't consistently meet a minimum amount required by the Water Works' waste water permit, it could cost the utility $10 million-$50 million to upgrade its treatment equipment -- an expense Turner said would raise customers' water bills.

Vaught said Thursday that although Water Works is still committed to filing the lawsuit, it is awaiting a letter from either the EPD or the governor's office detailing the state's position on Columbus' demand for a guarantee that it will get the water it needs.

"At the present time we have no assurances from anyone in the government of the state of Georgia that our concerns and needs are being taken care of," Vaught said.


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