U.S. senators from Florida and Alabama are again asking Congress to intervene in their states’ long-running “water wars” with Georgia.
Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., on Tuesday joined Alabama Republicans Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions in moving to insert language into a government funding bill requiring all three states to agree on changes in allocations of water from the two river systems they share.
All three states share the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, while Georgia and Alabama share the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls the flows in both systems, and has relied on a 2011 ruling from a federal appeals court that said Georgia has a legal right to water from Lake Lanier, at the top of the ACF system near Atlanta.
But Florida and Alabama contend that the Corps of Engineers has mismanaged the system by excessively reducing the freshwater flows downstream from Georgia, where the ACF and ACT systems begin.
“The situation has now become dire in my home state of Florida,” Rubio said Thursday on the Senate floor. “The bottom line is that the status quo is only working for one state.”
He pointed to the 2012 collapse of the Apalachicola Bay in the Florida Panhandle after a series of droughts and low flows. The collapse devastated Franklin County’s once-thriving seafood industry and prompted the U.S. government to declare the bay a federal fisheries disaster.
So Rubio proposed an amendment, co-sponsored by Nelson, Shelby and Sessions, to the funding bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. It would require the governors of Florida, Georgia and Alabama to agree on water allocations before the Corps of Engineers could reallocate the water in the two river systems. The measure also bans federal funds from being used to reallocate the water without an agreement by the governors.
The four senators offered similar language in another funding bill last fall, asking the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development to approve it. In a November 2015 letter to subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, they wrote that they wanted “to ensure that management of the river basin is not left to the whims of an unaccountable federal bureaucracy, but instead is properly determined and agreed upon by each state’s governor.”
But Georgia’s congressional delegation — which blocked that effort — has served notice that its members will fight the new one as well.
“As you will recall, the entire Georgia delegation was prepared to vote against any appropriations bill that included language affecting how the Army Corps of Engineers monitors states’ water rights and withdrawals,” wrote Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, both Republicans, in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in March.
Isakson and Perdue went on to warn that Georgia would oppose any funding bill “if it includes any language regarding the ACF and ACT river basins or if it directs the Corps to make any changes to its existing policy affecting water rights for any state.”
They also noted that Florida and Georgia are locked in litigation over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin in the U.S. Supreme Court, where Special Master Ralph Lancaster is overseeing the case. The Maine attorney has repeatedly pushed the warring states to come to terms.
Although Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal met with both Gov. Rick Scott and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley last year, he continues to support the lawsuit with money and other resources of his office. On April 6, for instance, Deal signed an executive order transferring more than $11 million to support the state’s water litigation team, following more than $20 million already spent.
Meanwhile, the Corps of Engineers is moving closer to issuing its new operations manual for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint system following public comment last fall. The new manual is expected in 2017, but Florida environmentalists say it will allocate even lower flows to the Apalachicola than the current plan.
“The status quo is not good,” said Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire. “The bay collapsed under the status quo. This would be a stopgap measure, with Georgia having to come to the table with Florida and Alabama before reallocations could be done.”
The so-called “water wars” over the ACF river system have been going on since 1990, when Florida and Alabama sued Georgia over allocations from the system. Since then, the three states have sparred over ACF as metro Atlanta’s need for drinking water has skyrocketed.