The governors of Georgia, Alabama and Florida predict that they will have a solution to their three-state water sharing dispute before they leave office in one year.
Emerging from a private meeting Tuesday that lasted nearly two hours, they provided no details on what a solution might look like. But they all expressed optimism that after nearly two decades, a solution can be found.
The three Republican governors last met to discuss water sharing in December 2007 in Tallahassee, Fla. They also predicted success then, but the conflict grew even testier and court rulings generally went against the interests of Georgia.
This time, they said, the outlook is different, partly because of a tight timetable before all three turn over their jobs to new state chief executives.
"We only have so much time left as governors of our respective states to accomplish this mission, and that's why we are as optimistic as we are that it's going to happen," Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said.
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said having a deadline fosters cooperation.
"We agree that it would be shameful, frankly, if we let the learning curve that we have been on and learned about transfer to another generation of elected leaders," he said.
Terms of office are not the only deadline facing the governors.
A federal judge ruled in July that Georgia has few legal rights to Lake Lanier, a federal reservoir on the Chattahoochee River and the main source of water for Atlanta. The judge gave the states and Congress until 2012 to agree on water sharing.
The Chattahoochee flows down the Georgia-Alabama border before forming the Apalachicola River and flowing through Florida into the Gulf of Mexico.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said negotiating teams from each state will work out details of water apportionment and conservation. Then the governors plan to present the plan to their state legislatures in the spring for approval. From there, the plan will go to Congress for approval before year's end.
"If we do that, I think each one of us can look back and say this was a successful venture that took too long, but we ultimately crossed the goal line," Riley said.
The three states have been fighting in court since 1990 over how to allocate the water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin in all three states and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin in Georgia and Alabama.
The outcome will affect employment, growth opportunities, drinking water and recreation in all three states.
A Georgia task force created by Perdue recently reported that there are plenty of ways to replace Lake Lanier's water for Atlanta, but they would be costly and none would provide enough water for the city to meet the federal judge's deadline of 2012.
The governors traded sharp words after the judge ruled in July. But their attitudes were much different Tuesday, with the three hugging and voicing optimism.
"Maybe part of it is the season we are in," Crist told reporters.