Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Water Tension in American Southeast

Courtesy of The Economist, an update on the water tensions in the southeastern U.S.  As the article notes:

“…FOR Americans from the parched western states, the notion of Alabama, Georgia and Florida battling over water must seem as daft as three fat people fighting for a grape at a lavish banquet. Average yearly rainfall in all three states exceeds 40 inches (just over a metre). Georgia and Alabama abound in lakes and rivers. Florida has almost 1,200 miles (1,900km) of coastline. But rapid growth in the region, particularly in and around Atlanta, has put pressure on its water supply. So now the three states are engaged in a protracted battle over water from two big river basins, the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT), the outcome of which may shape the area’s development for decades.

Although the three have been fighting it out in court for 20 years, the roots of the war go back much further. Atlanta is one of the few big American cities that is not sited directly beside a large body of water. Instead, Metropolitan Atlanta sits high up in the ACF basin, about 80 miles from the headwaters of the Chattahoochee. Its position so far upstream has left its water supply particularly vulnerable to floods and drought. In the mid-1940s Congress authorised the construction of Buford Dam to create Lake Lanier, an immense reservoir divided among the five counties north-east of Atlanta.

The federal government paid for the dam; Atlanta contributed nothing to its construction costs. Before the building started, the Army Corps of Engineers filed a report citing the four purposes the dam would serve: flood control, power supply, ensuring an adequate downstream flow for navigation and “assur[ing] a sufficient and increased water supply for Atlanta.”

Initially, that last phrase referred to regulating the flow of the Chattahoochee towards Atlanta to provide the city with a reliable water supply. But the years between 1956 and 1969 saw a doubling of the number of houses within two-and-a-quarter miles of Lake Lanier. Between 1960 and 2008 the population of metro Atlanta rose from just over 1m to nearly 5.4m. In the 1970s the Corps began approving “interim contracts” with local water suppliers in metro Atlanta to allow withdrawals from Lake Lanier—a privilege granted by statute only to the cities of Buford and Gainesville. Those contracts expired on January 1st 1990, but those local entities have continued to draw water from the lake.

Alabama sued the Army Corps of Engineers in June 1990, with Florida joining as a plaintiff and Georgia as a defendant. Since then the states have veered between negotiations and lawsuits; both have proved fruitless.

In brief, Alabama wants to ensure a steady supply of water from the Chattahoochee, which forms much of the border between it and Georgia, and from Lake Allatoona and Weiss Lake, which sit near the two states’ borders in the ACT basin. Florida wants to ensure an adequate flow to the Apalachicola river, formed by the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee. The Apalachicola basin is an area of great biodiversity, and Apalachicola Bay, where it meets the Gulf of Mexico, is home to a thriving oyster industry. Georgia’s downstream farmers also want to ensure an adequate supply for irrigation—making this battle less between Georgia on one side and Florida and Alabama on the other than Georgia, Florida and Alabama versus metro Atlanta.

For much of the past 20 years metro Atlanta had little reason to alter its water habits. That changed in 2009, when a federal judge ruled that Congress must approve withdrawals from Lake Lanier and that those must be frozen at current levels pending either congressional authorisation or a negotiated solution. Should neither be in place by 2012, then withdrawals would revert to their “baseline” levels from the 1970s, before the Corps of Engineers started issuing interim contracts (and when metro Atlanta had less than a third of the number of people it has today). In his ruling, the judge drily noted, “The Court recognises this is a draconian result.”

Congressional authorisation seems unlikely, since the combined delegations of Florida and Alabama are so much larger than Georgia’s (and there is no guarantee that congressmen from downstate Georgia would side with their Atlanta counterparts). Negotiations are difficult too: since a failure to reach a negotiated consensus would principally harm Atlanta, Alabama and Florida have little motivation to come to the table. Sonny Perdue, Georgia’s governor, asked his fellow governors in August for more talks, but all three are lame ducks and will be gone in January.

Still, a negotiated settlement appears inevitable. The alternative is escalating the fight to the Supreme Court, and there is little appetite for that; neither side has a clear road to victory. The three states will need to swallow their suspicions and return to the table. Some in Atlanta see the battle not as a legitimate fight over water, but a way to redirect growth towards Alabama and southern Georgia. That may be so. But Atlanta has benefited greatly from a dam and reservoir on which it spent nothing, and a federal judge ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision that allowed them to do so was “an abuse of discretion and contrary to the clear intent” of the act authorising the dam’s construction. This time round, Atlanta’s opponents hold all the high cards.”

This entry was posted on Monday, September 20th, 2010 at 12:08 pm and is filed under News.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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