Tri-State Water Wars (AL, GA, FL): A Closer Look

The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) basin flows from northeast Georgia south through Atlanta and along the border of Alabama, finally emptying into Florida's Apalachicola Bay. The Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) basin begins in northwest Georgia, and empties into Alabama's Mobile Bay. 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

In the mid-1900s, the U.S. 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. Lake Allatoona, a Corps lake on the Etowah River northwest of Atlanta (ACT basin), was authorized for similar purposes.

The booming population of metro Atlanta began to rely on Lakes Lanier and Allatoona 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 lakes’ water be reallocated for water supply in the Atlanta region.

In response, Alabama sued the Corps, claiming that reallocating the water in Lake Allatoona 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 either intervened or initiated their own lawsuits claiming that the Corps was not doing its part to allow the lakes to be used for current and future water supply.

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.

Cooperative Breakdown

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 back to litigation.

Protracted Court Battle

The ACF and ACT cases have been litigated almost continuously for over 15 years 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 with court briefs. 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. Florida then sued Georgia directly in the U.S. Supreme Court claiming illegal harm to Apalachicola Bay, in a case that remains ongoing.

A special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court to provide a recommendation encouraged both states to return to the negotiation table to settle the dispute ahead of his ruling, as mediation between the two states continued behind closed doors. That special master recommended that the case be dismissed because Florida had not met its burden of proof.  The full Supreme Court heard oral arguments from the states and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in January 2018.

In July 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision to remand the case back to the special master, stating that additional fact-finding and briefing of legal issues would be necessary before the Court can issue a final decision. The case went to a second special master, who recommended in December 2019 that Florida’s case be dismissed. The case is now once again pending before the Supreme Court. 

At the same time, the states are in new rounds of federal court litigation concerning the Water Control Manuals for both basins recently finalized by the Corps.

Meanwhile, Georgia has been periodically arguing that parts of its border with Tennessee are inaccurate, and that part of the Tennessee River’s Nickajack Lake actually lies within Georgia.  Georgia’s legislature has passed resolutions over the years to redraw the border, including one in 2019 to form a study committee with Tennessee and North Carolina to look at the issue.  Tennessee has understandably not been receptive of these efforts.     

Our work remains focused on taking all possible opportunities to ensure adequate instream flows with natural fluctuations, species protection, and public participation in the allocation decisions.