Water wars not over

Georgia wins, where’s the equity?

The Supreme Court recently let stand a federal appeals court decision that said water supply was a core mission of Lake Lanier, something legally disputed by Alabama and Florida. Today, a Florida conservationist writes that Atlanta may have won the battle but the war for equity goes on. Georgia leaders want to find a way to cooperate and forge a tri-state plan.

Tom Sabulis today’s moderator. Commenting is open following the column by Tad Leithead and Boyd Austin.

By Dan Tonsmeire

It certainly appears as though Atlanta won with last week’s Supreme Court ruling. Unfortunately, the prize is likely to be 10 more years of unproductive litigation and no end to the water wars between the states.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ unilateral interpretation of the Fish and Wildlife and Recreation authorizations will no doubt be challenged. The court did not address this authorization and left it up to the corps’ discretion. Georgia’s claim to all the water that falls on Georgia also remains in dispute.

By refusing to hear the appeal, the court upheld a previous appellate court decision and gave the corps an official green light to exercise its authority to manipulate Lake Lanier’s water use and provide Atlanta with all the water it needs, and then some.

If past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, the corps will indeed exercise this authority. Unfortunately, it once again will be at the expense of those living downstream whose survival depends on these waters just as much as the folks in Buckhead.

All the courts, lawyers and legal arguments in the world will not provide what Georgia, Alabama and Florida are thirsting for — a truly equitable plan to share the waters we all depend on. A practical water allocation plan can only come from those of us with a clear stake in the outcome, not from a Solomon-like court decision.

All of us have paid the price of the more than 22 years of litigation and have practically nothing to show for it except lawyer bills. After fighting so long, many wonder if it is even possible to divide up the water flow and effectively and sustainably manage its usage so that it is here for us, our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

I happen to believe that it is possible and that each of us has a responsibility to one another to do it. Courts hand down decisions, they do not create plans. No court will ever be able to do what we can do — develop a practical water management plan that provides real guidance to groups for sharing a resource that every individual has an equal right to use.

I know that such a plan is achievable because I have seen it firsthand in the progress made by the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint stakeholders. This forward-thinking group represents the individual economic and ecological interests of those living along the three divisions of the river. With a methodical and balanced approached to problem-solving, the stakeholders are making headway toward an equitable water allocation plan that will balance the interests of all three states.

The path to a solution that is fair to all three states does not go through the courts, but through intentional work toward the common good. The ACF stakeholders’ work must be supported along with all efforts toward an equitable and sustainable water management plan.

Dan Tonsmeire is Executive Director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper in Apalachicola, Fla.

By Tad Leithead and Boyd Austin

Recently, Georgia and metro Atlanta got some very good news about legal issues in both the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa basins.

The Supreme Court affirmed that Georgia has a legal right to continue using Lake Lanier for water supply. The next day, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued its opinion that it has the legal authority to accommodate Georgia’s request for additional withdrawals from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River. Finally, in the ACT, a federal judge dismissed Alabama’s claims challenging water supply operations at Lake Allatoona.

In the ACF, Alabama, Florida and the Southeast Federal Power Customers had long taken the position that water supply was not an “authorized purpose” of Lake Lanier. Last year, the 11th Circuit rejected those arguments by holding that water supply is a fully authorized purpose of Lake Lanier, along with flood control, hydropower and navigation. At the same time, the 11th Circuit charged the corps with determining its legal authority to grant Georgia’s 2000 request of 705 million gallons per day from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River. The corps concluded that it has the authority to grant the full request, although additional work is needed before the corps decides how much of the request to grant.

Legal issues surrounding Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona have impeded progress in both basins for more than 20 years. With water supply established as a fully authorized purpose of Lake Lanier, the corps can move forward with developing water control plans for both systems that balance the various stakeholders’ needs with protection of the environment. That process will involve an environmental analysis and comments from the public.

These recent decisions liberate metro Atlanta and Georgia to work with Florida, Alabama and the corps to develop plans that meet everyone’s reasonable water needs while protecting our natural resources. Our focus on conservation must be unwavering as we do so.

The Atlanta Regional Commission and the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District are mindful that the waters we depend on are shared resources. We have said for many years that water policy issues in the Southeast should be resolved using facts and sound science; politics and lawsuits have impeded the formulation of such a policy.

Our region anticipates adding some 3 million residents in the coming decades. These decisions mark a significant milestone in securing the water supply that is crucial to that future.

Now, as we endeavor with our neighbors to develop a fair and equitable water-sharing plan, we remain committed to good water stewardship.

The waters of the ACF and ACT sustain all who reside and do business in the basins. We stand ready to work with our neighbors to manage them wisely.

Tad Leithead is chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission. Boyd Austin is chairman of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District.

15 comments Add your comment

Gene Holmes

July 6th, 2012
3:39 pm

Joe is right. In addition to conservation, metro Atlanta needs new local reservoirs and an interbasin transfer from the Tennessee River, which contains as much wasted Georgia runoff as the entire average flow of the Chattahoochee leaving Buford Dam. Florida has already asked the Corps to consider the option of IBTs into the Chattahoochee.

Hillbilly D

July 6th, 2012
3:38 pm

Assuming you could ever get permission to build a pipeline from the Tennessee River, the cost of it would boggle the mind. On top of that, right now, you’re in a lawsuit with Alabama and Florida; try to take water from the Tennessee River and you can add Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky to your lawsuit for sure. It’s conceivable, you could even add states downstream from where the Tennessee goes into the Ohio and on into the Mississippi.

If you build more reservoirs, you”ll have to take land from folks who may have owned it for a long time, against their will, so the area can keep putting its eggs in the wide open development basket, so people who don’t even live in the area now can have water.

Metro Atlanta needs to learn to live within its resources and find something other than sprawl and wide open development to base its economy on. Of course, that’s an uphill battle since nearly every county government in Georgia, and probably the whole country, is controlled by real estate and development interests.


July 6th, 2012
3:25 pm

The solution really isn’t too hard. Atlanta has one of the smallest reservoir storage capacities per person that lives here in the country. The area needs another reservoir, or infrastructure installed for an interbasin water transfer (like a pipeline from another big river somewhere…hint hint Tennessee). Pump it from somewhere and discharge it to existing reservoirs so the existing plants can treat it for potable use.

Hillbilly D

July 6th, 2012
2:48 pm

Our region anticipates adding some 3 million residents in the coming decades. These decisions mark a significant milestone in securing the water supply that is crucial to that future.

Looks like somebody still hasn’t learned a damn thing.

Taipei Personality

July 6th, 2012
12:08 pm

Good points by all columnists here. I think that we need to earnestly seek a solution instead of relying on antiquated documents to make these crucial decisions. Atlanta is not the only area on the watershed that has grown – certainly at the time Buford Dam was built, cities downstream of Atlanta were also smaller, the nuclear plant was not even planned yet, and the shipping industry was not as big as it is today. The Endangered Species Act was not even written then. All of these uses, including the mammoth Atlanta metro area, have sprung up in the protective security of the ACF dam system. It is time to handle this like adults, and sit down and agree to the best compromise, which is one where nobody feels that they are “the winner”.

Gene Holmes

July 6th, 2012
11:49 am

Nelson’s suggestion is good, but the Atlanta area’s bedrock geology does not allow significant groundwater production. Georgia makes good use of the aquifers that underlie other parts of the State, and would be doing that in Atlanta as well if it were feasible.


July 6th, 2012
11:36 am

Water is important. Why does not Atlanta tap an under ground acquifer, then pure , clean, cold water will be available. Probably Peach tree St. is sitting on millions of gallons of water. Sometimes it is so simple. Why have ongoing lawsuits with the neighbors, develop your own supply.

Dumb and Dumber

July 6th, 2012
11:20 am

Its hard to sympathize with any of the three States on this.

(1) Georgia won the case — so you know there is no way that the legislature will take any steps to require water conservation or plan for the future;

(2) Alabama wants the water to support barge traffic hundreds of miles upriver — basically tossing a huge taxpayer subsidy to the barge transport business; and

(3) Florida is just down-right hypocritical — the state built the “cut” through St. George Island to reduce the time boats need to get into the Gulf — but by doing so they created a pathway for Gulf Seawater to get into Appalach Bay — thereby negatively impacting the oyster fishery which relies on a mix of salt adn freshwater. Florida has also been able to dredge the Bay for years to improve vessel channels without doing a NEPA analysis on how dredging the bay impacts the oyster beds (hint – it ain’t good for them).

So — even though all three states are run by Republicans, don’t expect any talking. Its time for more lawyers…..

The Anti-Gnostic

July 6th, 2012
11:11 am

“Our region anticipates adding some 3 million residents in the coming decades. These decisions mark a significant milestone in securing the water supply that is crucial to that future.”

The ideology of the cancer cell.

Gene Holmes

July 6th, 2012
11:02 am

Chairmen Leithead and Austin are right as far as they go. But the Corps’ opinion also contains a warning, that operating Lake Lanier to meet metro Atlanta’s future water needs along with other required uses will cause more frequent and severe fluctuations in lake levels, with adverse effects on recreation and adjacent property values. Fortunately, the Corps also notes that the Lake will be operated on the basis of net withdrawals, with due credit for returns and other inflows. This gives us the opportunity to mitigate the effects of severely fluctuating lake levels by augmenting its future inflows.