Tri-State Water Wars (AL, GA, FL): Background
The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin flows from northwest Georgia south along the border of Alabama and empties into Florida's Apalachicola Bay. The Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa basin also begins in northwest Georgia, and empties into Alabama's Mobile Bay. (In short-hand, these basins are referred to as the ACF and ACT basins.)
Questions about the future allocation of the water resources from these basins have given rise to the so-called "tri-state water wars."
A Tragedy of the Commons
Almost 50 years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers built Buford Dam on the Chattahoochee River, creating Lake Lanier. The authorized purpose of the lake was to provide flood control, hydropower and navigation.
The booming population of metro Atlanta began to rely on Lake Lanier for its water supply, and the Corps began issuing contracts to municipal water-supply providers without any evaluation under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In 1989, the Corps recommended that some of the lake water be reallocated for water supply in the Atlanta region.
In response, Alabama sued the Corps, claiming that reallocating the water would favor Georgia's interests and that the Corps had violated NEPA by ignoring the environmental impacts on the downstream states. Alabama also claimed that the Corps breached its duty to operate Lake Lanier and other federal reservoirs for the benefit of all downstream users in the ACF and ACT basins. Florida intervened on the side of Alabama, while Georgia and metro-Atlanta municipalities intervened on the side of the Corps.
Working Together: A Comprehensive Study
The Alabama lawsuit was put on hold so that the three states and the Corps could negotiate a resolution. The four parties agreed to conduct a comprehensive study of all of the water issues affecting the ACF and ACT basins to determine how to fairly allocate the water resources. The study recommended that interstate compacts be developed to apportion the water.
After they passed all three state legislatures, the compacts were ratified by Congress in 1997, creating a structure that would allow the states to work together to determine the best method for managing the resources, while litigation remained on hold.
Unfortunately, the states could not reach an agreement. After multiple deadline extensions, the compacts expired without resolution in 2003 (ACF) and 2004 (ACT), and the three states landed back in court. Now the focus of the "water wars" has shifted to litigation in three different federal courts in Alabama, Georgia, and Washington, D.C.
Protracted Court Battle
The ACF and ACT cases were litigated for almost a decade following the breakdown of the compacts. SELC has been tracking the litigation consistently for its partners in the Tri-State Conservation Coalition, and has weighed in periodically. The most momentous court ruling came in 2009, when Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that Lake Lanier was not properly authorized to provide water supply to metro Atlanta. That ruling started a two-year clock, during which Georgia adopted sweeping new water conservation and efficiency laws.
The ruling was ultimately reversed by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, so that Atlanta now has lawful access to Lake Lanier for its drinking water needs. When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, the litigation ultimately wound down in both basins, at least temporarily.
In October 2013, Florida filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court against Georgia, spurred in part by the near-collapse of the Apalachicola Bay oyster population in 2012, and intends to require Georgia to more fairly allocate the Chattahoochee River water flowing downstream to Alabama and Florida. Georgia has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit before justices will decide whether to hear the case.
Now all eyes are on the Supreme Court and the Corps of Engineers, which must decide how much water to allocate for various purposes, including drinking water, and how much water to send downstream to meet other human and ecological needs.
Our work remains focused on taking all possible opportunities to represent the environmental interest that would ensure adequate instream flows with natural fluctuations, species protection, and public participation in the allocation decisions.