Tri-state water dispute
The tri-state water dispute is a water use conflict between the states of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin. A major factor in the dispute is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' regulation of water flow from north Georgia's Lake Lanier to Alabama and Florida. Legal action in federal court has resulted in affirming the Corps' authority to negotiate the conflict.
In 1938, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers produced a report for the U.S. Congress that suggested a list of potential hydropower projects. One of the suggested dams was the Buford Dam for Lake Lanier in Georgia. In addition to providing hydroelectric power, the dam could also allow Atlanta the means by which to grow if, in the future, the city needed additional water resources. Additional objectives for the dam included reducing flooding downstream during heavy rains and allowing for easier navigation on Georgia waterways.
Congress authorized the construction of Buford Dam in 1946, and the dam was completed in 1957. As Atlanta's population continued to grow from the time the dam was built, the need for water also grew. In 1989, the Corps of Engineers released a report that some of the water that was being used for hydroelectric power should, instead, be used to supply Atlanta with water.
As a result of this recommendation, Alabama filed a lawsuit against Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers in 1990. Florida did the same later that year. Alabama challenged the Corps' recommendation of the reallocation of the water supply, arguing that the Corps' recommendation had favored Georgia's interests and had ignored the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 and the impact on the environment. Florida cited the impact of the dam's operations on endangered species as well as NEPA violations. Alabama and Florida later filed amended briefs to the 1990 Alabama suit stating that an endangered aquatic species is being further threatened due to a decrease of water levels.
After the 1990 lawsuit was filed in Alabama, parties on both sides decided to suspend legal procedures in an effort to reach an agreement suitable to all three states. In 1997, two compacts were created: the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) between Alabama, Florida, and Georgia and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) between Alabama and Georgia. Georgia also sued the Corps for wrongfully prohibiting Lake Lanier to be used for water consumption for metropolitan Atlanta. During the 1997 compacts, Georgia also entered into negotiations with the Corps to allow part of Lake Lanier to be used for water consumption. In 2004, both Alabama and Florida challenged these agreements due to the preeminence of the suit filed by Alabama in 1990. The 1997 compacts, however, were not successful, and were allowed to expire in 2003 and 2004, for the ACF and the ACT respectively. Several issues that the states could not come to an agreement on are minimum flow requirements, general operation standards, and consumption caps. Georgia argued that if the flow standards are met, then minimum flow requirements are unnecessary. Georgia and the Corps of Engineers reached an agreement that reduced their water usage from Lake Lanier, but in 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that this type of change in the agreement required Congressional approval. At various times, the governors of each of the three states have met, but these meetings have only created deadline extensions. When U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited Georgia in 2009, he stated that he would not force the states into any agreement, but he would help them come to an agreement.
U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled in July 2009 that metropolitan Atlanta was prohibited from taking water out of Lake Lanier in order for a three-year negotiation period to begin among Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. In October 2009, Judge Magnuson once again ruled against Georgia in response to an appeal made by Georgia on the July ruling.  In June 2011 the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the 2009 district court decision and confirmed the USACE's authority to regulate Lake Lanier for Atlanta's water supply. The Corps responded in June 2012 with plans for further analysis and evaluation of proposals from the three states.
In 2013, Florida filed an original action against Georgia in the Supreme Court of the United States, requesting equitable apportionment of waters in the ACF Basin. On November 3, 2014, the Court granted Florida leave to file the complaint, and the case is currently pending before a Special Master.
Georgia has indicated that the need for fresh water to use for human consumption is the primary concern in the issue. Experts in the metro Atlanta area assert that the people of metro Atlanta require and can safely extract 705 million gallons of fresh water per day from a number of reservoir and water basins around northern Georgia until the year 2030. Georgia states the water from Lake Allatoona and the Etowah River in North Georgia could sustain the water needs of the metro Atlanta area. Georgia's main concern is whether or not they have the capability to supply over 5.6 million people in the metro Atlanta area with potable water.
Because of Georgia's need to supply a booming population with safe, usable water, Georgia's circumstance is unique to the three states involved. The interstate water dispute becomes an intrastate issue for Georgia because of the major quantities of water needed for supporting population growth in the metro Atlanta; Georgia's downstream users maintain that an increase in the water consumption of metro Atlanta results in a decrease of available water for the downstream users of south Georgia. Farmers in Southwest Georgia and homeowners on West Point Lake perceive metro Atlanta as competition for water.
For the past two decades, Georgia's leadership has failed to produce significant agreements with Alabama and Florida. Many people blame the course of action which leaders of the state have chosen to take when dealing with this issue. The old course of "Conflict, Conceal, and Capture" has not resulted in any progress. The solution proposed in December 2009 by former Governor Sonny Perdue's Water Contingency Planning Task Force includes a greater amount of water conservation and further negotiation regarding the reallocation of portions of Lake Lanier for the purpose of supplying the needs of metro Atlanta. Nathan Deal, current Governor of Georgia, is currently emphasizing resolving the conflict with Alabama by seeking new solutions to Atlanta's need for water.
Alabama actively utilizes the ACF River Basin for a variety of purposes to include agriculture, industry, fisheries, recreation, preservation of habitats and biodiversity, power generation, navigation, and water quality, all of which Atlanta's usage may limit. Alabama has been straightforward in identifying its purposes throughout the ACF negotiations. The specific goals include adequate water levels of the Chattahoochee River through the Alabama cities of Phenix City and Columbia, perpetuation of waste assimilation and water use permits in the middle regions of the Chattahoochee River, continuation of the Corps' projects such as hydropower and flood control, preservation of water levels of the Alabama lakes of West Point Lake and Lake Eufaula, and insuring that all current and future plans do not adversely affect the stated goals. Even though the state of Georgia had statewide water restrictions, the city of Phenix City, Alabama failed to put water restrictions on their customers during the drought of 2007.
During the early part of the process, Alabama was, compared to Georgia and Florida, somewhat ill-equipped to address some of the arguments presented by Florida and Georgia. The state didn't pass a comprehensive Water Resources Act until 1993, more than two years after their lawsuit was filed against the Corps. The newly created Office of Water Resources wasn't fully staffed until 1997.
As another downstream user of the ACF River Basin, Florida wants and needs enough freshwater to reach the Apalachicola Bay of Northwestern Florida, where major shrimping and other seafood industries provide significant income for the state. These industries are vital to the Apalachicola Bay area because these industries bring millions of dollars to the region and provide thousands of jobs for people. Unlike Georgia, where the issue over the use of freshwater is centered on the capability to provide a growing population with freshwater, Florida is faced with economic challenges if the water from upstream is diminished.
As all three states have portions of the ACF river basin, ACT river basin, or both within their borders, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida are concerned with and involved in the issue. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created Lake Lanier and controls its flow of water, involving the Corps in the dispute. Concerned with the environmental effects of the two river basins, the Tri-State Conservation Coalition—a league of more than 45 organizations including the Alabama Rivers Alliance, Southern Environmental Law Center, American Rivers, Lake Watch of Lake Martin, and Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper—is involved with the goal of preserving the water quality and other environmental factors.
Alabama is concerned about the environmental results should drought occur and the water of the ACF and the ACT river basins is not allowed to flow freely due to use of Lake Lanier for Atlanta water consumption. These two river basins are also the habitat for countless numbers of fish and other aquatic life, which need a proper amount of water to thrive. If the water levels fall too low, then this aquatic life may suffer. Endangered species of both sturgeon and mussel live in the basins and reducing the water supply to the basins would put these endangered species in further jeopardy. Further, NEPA requires the submittal of an environmental impact statement (EIS) before any action with potentially major environmental effects. Such a statement has not been published, indicating the full environmental impact has not been assessed. Draft Programmatic EISs for the two basins were published in 1999, but were never formalized and no Record of Decision (ROD) was ever published.
In Florida, there are major environmental implications. The Apalachicola Bay provides 35 percent of the freshwater input to the eastern Gulf of Mexico, which is vital to the richly productive estuaries in this region. The key to the estuary is the fluctuation salinity levels produced by the ACF's freshwater flow. A reduced flow of fresh water into these estuaries would drive salinity levels higher, altering the whole balance of the marine life.
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