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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Worsening drought in Alabama highlights critical need for water planning More »

After several months of extremely dry conditions with little to no rain and above average temperatures, parts of the Southeast, including Alabama, Georgia, southern Tennessee, and the western portions of the Carolinas, continue to experience intensifying drought conditions this week.


In addition to reports of an increasing number of wildfires and visible impacts on the state’s most important rivers (most notably the Cahaba River, which is approaching historically low levels), Alabama is in a particularly vulnerable position without a statewide water management plan and no meaningful drought response planning in place.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley has signed a Drought Emergency Declaration, banning all outdoor burning in 46 counties and marking the first drought declaration in Alabama since the record-breaking 2007 drought.

Severe drought conditions again in 2012 and calls for leadership on water planning from SELC and Alabama Rivers Alliance prompted Governor Bentley to task a group of state agencies with initiating the first steps toward a comprehensive state water management plan.

Yet despite some progress, including convening focus panels to develop water planning policies, the lack of pre-emptive planning and action becomes even more apparent in cases of extreme water scarcities, like the current drought. Without a plan, water users are not required to conserve their water, even during a drought.

"When it comes to managing our water resources, we cannot afford to continue this pattern of sitting idle, even as the warning signs start to emerge," said SELC Staff Attorney Sarah Stokes. "In order to stop this cycle and lessen the likelihood of a crisis situation in the future, we need leadership at the state level to implement immediate action steps and determine a long-term plan for protecting Alabama's waters." 

"After the droughts in the '80s, ‘90s, and in 2007, there was a lot of talk and hand wringing but little action--now we are once again in a drought emergency and our rivers are paying the ultimate price," said Alabama Rivers Alliance Program Director Mitch Reid. "Moving forward, the Alabama Water Agencies Working Group must provide the Governor with a real plan for sustainably managing our water resources, because what we have now is clearly not working."

Read an op-ed published this week on by Alabama Rivers Alliance Program Director, Mitch Reid: “Gov. Bentley should protect Alabama rivers by restricting watering during drought crisis”

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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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