By Chris Joyner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gov. Nathan Deal’s plans for new reservoir development have people downstream of metro Atlanta wondering what it means for them, including Alabama’s governor who said no new reservoirs should be built until the two states reach a settlement.

“If Georgia keeps taking water illegally from the federal reservoirs, and takes more from new reservoirs, it will put downstream communities in an even worse position than we are in today,” Gov. Robert Bentley said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I am very much opposed to anything that would harm Alabama’s water resources.”

Deal has put $46 million in his budget proposal — part of a promised $300 million over four years — to promote reservoir development as a way to stabilize the state’s water demands. Last week, in a speech before the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Deal said he wanted to work with local governments to expand existing reservoirs and explore developing new ones, and he created a task force to figure out how to pay for it.

Bentley, who like Deal took office last month, said he is ready to “jump-start negotiations immediately” with his Georgia counterpart to settle differences between the states on how to allocate water resources. Any new reservoir development should be a byproduct of those talks, he said.

Deal’s push for new reservoirs has caught the attention of conservationists in Alabama as well.

“That’s something of real concern for us on this side of the border,” said Mitch Reid, program director for Alabama Rivers Alliance, a Birmingham-based conservation group. “We see them turning their eyes toward the headwaters of the Alabama, Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers. Those are the really key headwaters of our state’s rivers.”

Georgia has been in a legal war with Alabama and Florida for 20 years over water rights issues. In 2009, a federal judge tipped the balance by deciding that metro Atlanta had no right to drinking water from Lake Lanier and gave the state three years to figure out a solution.

Part of that solution is developing new reservoirs, Deal has said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott would not comment on Deal’s plan while negotiations are ongoing.

Villanova University law professor Joseph Dellapenna, a water rights expert who has followed the tri-state water case, said the history between the states does not foster trust.

“It’s impossible to know whether it would be a problem for the neighboring states without knowing what the goals are,” he said. “But it would only stand to reason that Alabama and Florida would be suspicious.”

Law professors watching the water wars generally agree Deal’s reservoir plan could help in settling the issue of how water is allocated between the states, depending on how the reservoirs are used. If they add more storage for the purpose of modulating downstream flow, that could help, University of Alabama law professor William Andreen said.

“It just depends on how those details are worked out,” he said. “It depends on your willingness to spill water when it needs to be spilled.”

But if the new Georgia reservoirs held on to their water during summer droughts, that would likely make things worse on both the environment and interstate relations, he said.

“People don’t want their boats to be grounded, so it does create situations where there is competition,” he said. “Folks have to be willing to compromise a bit.”

University of Florida law professor Christine Klein said Deal’s reservoir push could have an effect on the state’s legal position should the water fight end up settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. Combined with water conservation legislation and the development of a state water plan, Klein said a plan to develop a system of regional water supply reservoirs would show that Georgia is taking its water planning responsibilities more seriously.

“I think it is all part of a package [demonstrating] Georgia is cleaning up its own house in terms of water efficiency,” she said.

But it is not just neighboring states closely watching Deal’s plans unfold. Downstream communities in Georgia have a stake, also.

Mike Gaymon, the CEO of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, said reservoir development in North Georgia should be part of a larger conversation effort on upstream water use.

“We’re not anti-Atlanta-region growth,” he said. “If they want to build 12 reservoirs in North Georgia to be able to help those counties grow, then I say more power to them. Thank goodness our state continues to grow. But what about what happens to the water supply after Atlanta?”

Gaymon said upstream governments should require a great majority of treated water to be returned to the same basin so it may be used again to support downstream growth.

“We feel that 85 percent should be the goal to shoot for,” he said.

Teresa Tomlinson, the mayor of the Columbus consolidated government, said new reservoirs are a good first step in managing the state’s water, if taken in conjunction with regulations limiting the transfer of water from one river basin to another.

“We hope it does not become just a way to subsidize the continued growth of the state’s economic engine,” she said.