Tri-State Water Wars (AL, GA, FL)
Listen in: SELC’s Gil Rogers weighs in as Georgia, Florida prepare for Supreme Court water battle More »
The decades-long battle between Florida and Georgia (and sometimes Alabama) over water use in the river systems shared by the three states is picking up steam again, as Georgia recently filed its response to Florida’s lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court agreed last year to hear Florida’s suit, which challenges what the state says is an unchecked depletion of water resources on Georgia’s part. As a result of high water consumption around the growing metro-Atlanta area, Florida claims there is not enough water flowing down into its river systems to sustain the state’s lucrative oyster industry.
As both states gear up for what may potentially be a long fight in the U.S. Supreme Court, Senior Attorney Gil Rogers talked to Atlanta’s NPR station WABE about what we can expect from the latest round of water wars:
“Ultimately it’s going to have to be the states and all of these users of these river systems coming together and settling on some kind of fair formula that allows for all of these competing needs to be harmonized, and allows for enough water to remain in these systems for them to be healthy.”
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). Georgia wants to have enough water to allow metro Atlanta to continue growing, while Alabama and Florida—the downstream users—want enough water flowing for their current and future economic well-being. The dispute has involved several local, state and federal agencies, 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 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.
What’s Being Done
SELC is a leading member of the Tri-State Conservation Coalition, which is keeping close tabs on this long-running dispute. We want to ensure that the final outcome protects water quality and quantity in the two basins, which provide habitat for dozens of species of fish and wildlife, as well as recreation, drinking water and irrigation for millions of Southerners. In the past, we have weighed in with courts and federal and state agencies urging any negotiations to take environmental needs into account.
The Army Corps of Engineers is now revising its drought contingency plan and water control manuals for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin and has recently completed a new manual for the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa basin (which was immediately challenged in court by metro Atlanta). SELC is thoroughly analyzing and critiquing these revisions as part of the federal environmental review process.
Charting a New Course for Clean Water in Alabama: Developing a State Water Plan
Alabama remains the only state involved in the tri-state water wars without a comprehensive water plan. Both the quantity of water Alabama possesses and the amount it uses is unknown. Because it does not have a plan to balance competing water users’ needs, it is at a severe disadvantage when it competes with its neighbors for water.
SELC joined forces with the Alabama Rivers Alliance and other citizen groups 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. These groups have been advocating for a comprehensive science-based plan that will ensure enough water for local communities, businesses, farmers and sustainable aquatic ecosystems.
In 2012, Governor Robert Bentley tasked a group of state agencies to provide recommendations for an implementation plan. These agencies released the Alabama Water Resources Management Policy Report in April 2014 and continue to make progress toward creating water policy for the state. Now, SELC is pushing for the implementation of the majority of those suggestions as enforceable policies.
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