Dispute Turns 25 This Year
by Ed Tiley
As the Tri-State Water Wars celebrates its twenty-fifth birthday, I’m reminded that lawsuits are a little like volcanoes. They slumber and rumble and vent and occasionally erupt, while steadily the pressure builds until finally (often decades later) some sort of a decision (good or bad) comes spewing forth covering the earth with a hot, hardening shift in landscape.
In 1989 the Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to reallocate water usage and to create a new reservoir to provide water for Atlanta. Shortly thereafter Alabama filed the original lawsuit in court against Georgia and the Corps, Florida joined Alabama as plaintiff, and the Tri-State Water Wars began.
Related: Interview with Apalachicola Riverkeeper about the ACF Stakeholders
Recently, there have been some rumblings and ventings that range from the ridiculous to the near sublime. When last we recapped the situation last fall, Florida had filed a reaction to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals with the US Supreme Court asking for injunctive relief asserting that Georgia will likely double its water usage by 2040. The filing states, “The situation is dire and the need for relief immediate,” and asks the court to appoint a Special Master to arbitrate an end to the dispute. Not surprisingly, Brian Robinson, spokesman for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, painted lawsuit as “political theatre and nothing more.”
A Busy February
The New Year started quietly enough, but February brought a flurry of rumblings and tremors.
In early February Georgia’s lawyers filed a response to Florida’s request that, not surprisingly, asks the high court to refuse Florida’s motion.
Also in early February Florida joined 21 other states in a brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, siding with the American Farm Bureau and other agricultural interests in opposing a Federal clean-up plan for the Chesapeake Bay that read in part, “If this [cleanup] is left to stand, other watersheds, including the Mississippi River Basin, could be next.”
This action infuriated editors at the Pensacola News Journal who journalistically flayed the hide off of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (without ever mentioning her boss, Gov. Rick Scott) by reminding readers that Bondi was up for reelection, presumably with American Farm Bureau funding in her war chest, and that she should be turned out of office for wasting Florida dollars on her contributor’s account.
Also in February, Jud Turner, director of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, raised a fuss when he appeared before the state’s General Assembly testifying in favor of Senate Bill 213, introduced by Senator Ross Tolleson, that would clarify the director’s authority to suspend water use permits in the Flint River valley in time of drought so that the state could then augment river flow by pumping water into the river to maintain minimum flows. The thinking being that this would prevent wildlife die-offs during drought, and thus keep the Federal Government from taking adverse action against Georgia.
Not surprisingly, Flint Riverkeeper and other environmental groups criticized the plan saying it was just a ruse to artificially raise water flow to Florida, giving Georgia an tool in placating Florida in the Water War.
On March 10, 2014 Turner submitted a guest blog with the Albany Herald defending his position, saying that critics have used “scare tactics” to mischaracterize what the bill is meant to be and do. Late in the legislative session this March SB213 was significantly amended according to a report on the Ga Water Wire published by the Georgia River Network in Athens, GA, so that the bill is not as objectionable as its earlier incarnations. A watered down (pun intended) version of the bill was passed and signed into law in April 2014.
Still, it seems odd that after all these years of Georgia’s political leaders posturing about how Florida wants to “put mussels before people” that the state of Georgia, with the Fed’s backing have begun a “pilot program” of pumping ground water into the Flint basin to protect endangered mussel species in the Flint Basin. Ironically, these are largely the same endangered species in the Apalachicola that have been at the heart of some of the rulings with respect to the Endangered Species Act that are part of the issues at dispute in the Water Wars.
Surely no scientifically based resolution to the dispute could ever rely on this sort of sleight of hand as a workable solution. Georgia’s own Environmental Protection Division projects that every gallon of groundwater pumped out of the Flint basis reduces the amount of water percolating into Florida wetlands downstream by as much as half a gallon.
Alabama’s Valentine For Georgia
According to a February 11 report by Mary Orndorff Troyan of the Gannett Washington Bureau Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions offered up an unwelcome Valentine for Georgia by accusing Georgia of “siphoning off so much water upstream that it’s hurting clean-energy customers downstream.” According to Sessions, lower water flows reduce Alabama’s ability to generate hydroelectric power. Less ability to generate lower cost energy means demand has to be met using more expensive sources of electricity using nuclear or fossil fuels.
“Alabama electric customers are paying for Atlanta’s excess water consumption,” Sessions wrote in a letter to colleagues.
While Floridians almost immediately think Flint-Chattahoochee-Apalachicola in regard to the Water Wars, it should be remembered that the western portion of Atlanta’s Metro Area lies in the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin, which supports a comparable system of dams, lakes, rivers and streams that flow into central Alabama. There are two similar river systems involved in the Water Wars. Lake Allatoona near Atlanta is another Corps of Engineers project that provides hydroelectric power and municipal water for Atlanta. It feeds the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin which in turn feeds Mobile Bay. Seven dams in Alabama along the system are used to generate power.
Last year Sessions held hearings where he grilled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water management officials from all three states before a Senate committee, angrily accusing Cobb County, GA of taking more water from Lake Allatoona than allowed. A general from the Corp allowed that Cobb had exceeded allotments in the past, but that they were currently in compliance.
After the hearings Sessions has tried to calculate the cost to electric customers when the Corp sells water instead of generating electricity. Hydro power is less costly to produce, and the Corps has confirmed that reduced flows do result in higher prices according to the Gannett article, but the actual number has remained elusive.
Since the 11th Circuit’s ruling in 2011, attention for the resolution of the dispute has partly focused on Congress where Florida and Alabama continue to wage water war on Georgia.
Happy 25th Birthday Water Wars!
That Ol’ Man River
He must know somethin’,
But he don’t say nothin’
He just keeps rollin’,
He keeps on rollin’ along
– Showboat ~ Jerome Kern – Oscar Hammerstein II – 1927