BRADENTON, Fla. – Georgia officials hailed the U.S. House’s passage of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013 because it will further the state’s efforts to deepen the Savannah Harbor.

The act, passed by the House on Oct. 23, now goes to a conference committee. The Senate passed its version of the bill in May.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal called the act’s passage a “breakthrough moment” for the state’s effort to deepen the Savannah River channel to 47 feet from 42 feet.

The House Resolution authorizes $662 million for the dredging project. To date, Georgia has authorized $231 million for its share mostly from bond proceeds.

“Even though the Water Resources Reform and Development Act still has to go to a conference committee…[the] action by the House is another step toward getting the federal portion of the cost,” Deal said. “In addition to authorizing the project, the bill could allow Georgia to begin using the money it has put aside for the deepening.

“That is a critical victory for Georgia as we race to get ready for the much larger ships that will soon sail through an enlarged Panama Canal.”

Work deepening the harbor has stalled because Congress has not released federal funds for Georgia, and other ports planning similar projects in preparation for mega ships that will begin using the expanded Panama Canal when work there is completed in 2015.

“This bill not only authorizes the deepening of the Port of Savannah, but helps to fuel Georgia’s economic health and allows our region and state to remain globally competitive,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “Finalizing this legislation and getting a bill to the president needs to be a priority for Congress.”

The House resolution also encourages states with water disputes to solve them “through interstate water agreements or compacts that take into consideration the concerns of all affected states.”

It did not mention the year’s-long disagreement between Georgia, Florida, and Alabama over water-sharing rights, but it said governors could request assistance from the Secretary of the Army drawing up agreements or compacts.

“As governor of Georgia, which has negotiated in good faith on interstate water discussions, I strongly endorse the ‘sense of Congress’ on how to handle interstate water disputes,” Deal said. “These decisions belong in state capitols, not in Washington and not in court.”

Florida filed a lawsuit Oct. 1 seeking an injunction from the U.S. Supreme Court to stop what it said was Georgia’s “unchecked and growing consumption of water that continues to harm the families of Northwest Florida.”

The lack of water flowing from Georgia has negatively impacted north Florida’s oyster beds in Apalachicola Bay, according to fishery officials.

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