Tri-State Water Wars (AL, GA, FL)

Lake Lanier: Atlanta's fast-paced growth has over-tapped Lake Lanier, leading to a decades-long water fight with Alabama and Florida.


Photo © Craig Tanner

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SELC to serve on focus panels for Alabama’s first statewide water plan More »

Starting this week, SELC and our Alabama partners will be weighing in on focus panel groups to develop water planning policies, a process that will ultimately inform Alabama’s first comprehensive water management plan.

Appointed by Governor Bentley, members on the various focus area panels were asked to participate based on their expertise in water resource issues, including:

  • local and regional planning
  • protecting instream flow
  • certificates of use, permits, and interbasin transfers
  • riparian rights and other legal issues,
  • water conservation, efficiency, and reuse.

Focus panel members will deliberate these key issues and submit recommendations for water management to a group of state agencies called the Alabama Water Agencies Working Group (AWAWG).

Senior Attorney Gil Rogers will serve on the riparian rights and other legal issues panel, attending the group’s first meeting today. From SELC’s Birmingham office, Staff Attorney Sarah Stokes will serve on the water conservation, efficiency, and reuse panel starting October 7th, and Managing Attorney Keith Johnston will serve on the certificates of use, permits, and interbasin transfers panel starting October 20th.

As the only state involved in the tri-state water wars without a water plan, SELC and our partners at Alabama Rivers Alliance, other conservation groups, and water users statewide have long advocated for developing a plan in order to strengthen Alabama’s position and negotiate the state’s water needs while improving the health of its water resources.

“It’s an honor to have the opportunity to participate in these important discussions and work with some of the most respected voices in the water planning community,” said SELC’s Sarah Stokes. “Our hope is that the ongoing planning work within the panels will lead to strong policy decisions so that Alabama has enough clean water, now and for the future.”

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Advocating for the Long-Term Health of Two Major River Basins

For decades, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida have been battling over the future allocation of water in two major river basins that cross their borders (the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa and the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basins).  The dispute has involved several local, state and federal agencies, as well as numerous courts and mediators, and its outcome is one of the most important environmental issues facing the region today.

Each state has its own concerns about the proper allocation of water:

• Georgia:  As the upstream user, Georgia wants to have enough water to continue growing, particularly in booming metro Atlanta, in addition to supplying cities such as Columbus and heavy agricultural usage in the state’s southwest corner. The problem is that Atlanta is not in a water-rich area of the state, and it sprawls across the tops of multiple river systems that drain into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. 
• Alabama:  Alabama is concerned that Atlanta’s ever-increasing thirst for water will severely limit its own use of water for power generation, municipal supply, fisheries and other current and future uses.
 Florida:  Florida wants enough freshwater to reach the Apalachicola Bay to sustain its multi-million dollar shellfish industry, which is under severe ecological stress resulting from low river flows and saltwater intrusion.

What’s Being Done

A leading member of the Tri-State Conservation Coalition, SELC is keeping close tabs on this long-running dispute to ensure the final outcome protects water quality and quantity in the two basins. In the past, we have weighed in with courts and federal and state agencies urging them to take environmental needs into account.

SELC is thoroughly analyzing and critiquing the Army Corps of Engineers’ revisions to its drought contingency plan and water control manuals for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin, as well as the manual for the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa basin as part of the federal environmental review process.  The ACT basin’s Water Control Manual was finalized in 2015 and has already been challenged by both Georgia and Alabama.

Developing a State Water Plan for Alabama

Alabama remains the only state involved in the tri-state water wars without a comprehensive water plan, putting the state at a severe disadvantage when competing with its neighbors for water without a plan to balance competing water needs within its own borders.

SELC joined forces with the Alabama Rivers Alliance, other citizen groups and water users to lobby the governor and legislators to develop a water plan that would strengthen Alabama’s position for negotiating its water needs, while improving protections of its water resources for current and future generations.

In 2012, Governor Robert Bentley tasked a group of state agencies to provide recommendations for an implementation plan, which were released in the Alabama Water Resources Management Policy Report in April 2014.

SELC continues to play a prominent role in stakeholder panels convened by the state, using the opportunity to weigh in on policy issues and help develop potential legislation. We will also continue to advocate for a water plan that emphasizes conservation and efficiency, discourages reliance on new reservoirs, and establishes flow standards to maintain healthy waterways.

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