Litigating Over Water – Economics Battles Conservation

Everyone living in Georgia, Alabama or Florida would be the first to tell you that they have equal rights to the water that fills the reservoir called Lake Lanier, located on the Chattahoochee River. The reservoir accounts for 62% of the Corps of Engineers water storage capacity, and it gets its water from 6% of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin. The reservoir is located north of Atlanta and services 72% of the 5 million people living in Metropolitan North Georgia.

The problem is that Florida and Georgia believe that Atlanta is using water it has no right to use as a water supply. The ACF Basin was authorized in 1945 and 1946 by Congress, and it said the basin was to be used for navigation, flood control and hydropower. The Water Supply Act of 1958 gave the Corps of Engineers permission to deliver water supply, but only if the delivery did not impact the authorized basin uses.

In 2001, Georgia sued the Corps to get access to the Lake Lanier water supply. A settlement was reached in which the Corps agreed to provide Georgia with water for 20 years. Florida appealed a court approval of the settlement. A U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the settlement. In a separate case, a Jacksonville, Florida U.S. District Court decided that the use of Lake Lanier as a Georgia water supply needed federal Congressional approval. The District Court decision was then overturned on appeal. Now, Florida and Alabama have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to settle the issue once and for all.

What the litigation history does not tell the reading public is that the 19,800 square mile ACF Basin that flows from Northern Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico is not only a water supply for Atlanta, but it is also supports multi-state power plants. Even more important to some people is the fact the ACF Basin is one of the richest basins in North America in terms of biodiversity, supporting commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico.

 What a Mess

The first thought that comes to mind is this: What a mess. The dry conditions and increased water demands by populations and industries have forced the Corps to draw most of the water from the Chattahoochee River needed to meet required stream flow rates in the Apalachicola River. This has severely and negatively impacted the ACF Basin. The 2007 drought brought out the worst of the 3 states involved. Georgia looks water-greedy for its growing population. Alabama is resentful because it needs the water to continue flowing at the right level to maintain its power plants. Florida is upset because it needs the fresh water flowing into Apalachicola Bay to support the oyster and shrimp industry.

The rich biodiversity in the Florida floodplain fed by the ACF basin is usually sustained by winter and spring floods that have largely disappeared in the last few years. The Florida floodplain and its swamps are dried up. The forest and its waterways are struggling to sustain the amphibians, reptiles, snails, clams, beavers, river otters and fish – all of which need lots of water. However, it is not the drought that is threatening the floodplain wildlife. It is the ACF Basin water management. In the opinions of Florida and Alabama, the Corps is mismanaging its responsibility to protect the ACF Basin water flow and Georgia is just covetous.

 Right or Wrong?

This is an intricate story full of drama. There are 3 states in a long drawn out legal battle. There are environmentalists fighting to protect endangered species. There is a state that wants unlimited access to Lake Lanier to support its growing population. There are states that want the ACF Basin managed so that fresh water continues to flow to the Gulf of Mexico without interruption.

The question is this: Should Atlanta’s water needs take precedence over Alabama’s  and Florida’s needs to maintain industries within their respective states? One could argue that Atlanta’s needs should take precedence simply because one cannot reasonably cut off a water supply to 5 million people. That said, the argument could also be made that Atlanta encourages uncontrollable growth and should not be allowed to just take water to the detriment of the other states because the city says it needs it.

This is a dilemma with no right or wrong answer. It would seem that all 3 states have good arguments: Atlanta needs water; Alabama needs power; Florida needs its fishing industry. Everyone needs biodiversity protected. Hence, one thing which can be learned from all of this is that planning for a water supply needs to take drought into consideration, and, therefore, there should be a clear agreement between the states that will rely on the water. One cannot assume there will always enough water.

Should Atlanta be allowed to access a water supply from Lake Lanier? Answer our poll to let us know what you think!

  • Robert Stevenson  November 26, 2012 at 8:44 am

    Gerogia, and specifically Atlanta need to responsibly curb their growth. As a country we need to locate industry and people in areas that can support their needs without robbing those “downstream”. This is indicative of the Southern States recent fight to woo industry and investment away from areas that already have established infrastructure and skilled labor with tax and other incentives. Now the squabble is starting to spred amonst themselves. While organic growth is good and should not be limited legislatively, the needs of established communities of all types need to be considered before we simply bow to those advocates of unfettered growth.


Leave A Comment

Please enter your name. Please enter an valid email address. Please enter a message.