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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Georgia, Florida water battle goes to Supreme Court More »

Last week, before the U.S. Supreme Court, Georgia and Florida presented oral arguments in the decades-long battle between the two states over water rights. It was the first time the Supreme Court has weighed in on the ongoing dispute.

Rather than accepting the earlier special master’s recommendation from 2016 that sided with Georgia, the fact that the Supreme Court will be hearing oral arguments could be an encouraging sign for Florida’s case. Florida argues that increasing water use from the metro Atlanta area and Georgia agriculture is drying up the Apalachicola Bay and has requested Georgia put a cap on its water use.

Gil Rogers, director of SELC’s Georgia and Alabama offices, has been following these tri-state water wars for years and attended the Supreme Court hearings.

“The justices’ questions seemed to be implicitly acknowledging that there is a real problem in the Apalachicola river system, that they’re not getting enough water in Florida,” said Rogers. “I think they’re just wrestling with what, if anything, they can do about it.”

Alabama is also involved in the negotiations over water allocation as the watershed in question crosses into the state. But Alabama didn’t have a seat at the table in these latest hearings in large part due to the lack of a state water plan. While SELC was part of the initial meetings begun in 2015 to start developing recommendations for a state water plan, Governor Kay Ivey recently disbanded the groups and it is unclear how the process will be revived.

Even with this interstate water fight going before the nation’s highest court, a final resolution is not necessarily imminent. Without an established limit on the amount of water Georgia uses, the state has no incentive to curb its water usage. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision on these most recent hearings by June.

Read more about the case in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and hear Gil Rogers comment on the case for Florida public radio.

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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, and the ACF basin’s Water Control Manual was finalized in December 2016. Updated for the first time in over 50 years, the manual sways in Georgia’s favor by giving the Atlanta metro region its requested water allotment through 2050, and is likely to be challenged by downstream states as a result.

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 has played 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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