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Water wars continue between Alabama, Georgia, Florida

Southern Environmental Law Center

The states of Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been fighting over water for decades.

Water use around the city of Atlanta is causing problems downstream in Alabama and Florida. 

The U.S. Supreme court sided with Georgia in a lawsuit with Florida earlier this year. But that doesn’t mean the water war is over. Alabama and Florida both accuse Georgia of using too much water. 

“As human activity in the basin has grown it has put economic and ecologic stresses on the system," said Gordon Rogers, the Flint Riverkeeper in Georgia.

He is in a position to know, as has served with the ACF Stakeholders in various capacities. There’s enough water for everyone most years. Rogers said the problems arise when there’s a drought. 

“There are real and perceived shortages of water in the basin. Some of them are real, some of them are perceived and so the arguments center on what is real and what is not," he said. "None of it matters really unless we are in a drought but the things that we do when we’re not in a drought matter in terms of getting prepared for droughts.” 

The town of Eufaula is home to the Walter F George Reservoir. It’s just over 220 miles downstream of Lake Lanier that supplies Atlanta with water. That reservoir is on the Chattahoochee River on the border between Georgia and Alabama. 

Phillip Clayton is the current chair of the ACF Stakeholders group. He said one issue for Alabama is the several industries that rely on the Chattahoochee. Less water means fewer jobs. Clayton uses one of the paper mills as an example. 

“If they do not have adequate flow, they would shut down,” he said. “That is 800 jobs and that would have a tremendous impact on our local economy here, the economy of Phenix City and Columbus and in the region because losing associated indirect jobs that support those 800 direct jobs.” 

Clayton says the stakeholders’ water plan was largely ignored by all three states, and by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. One of the biggest obstacles for the plan was the recent Supreme Court case between Georgia and Florida. Rogers said communication between leaders dried up. 

The Chattahoochee River and it's connection to Lake Lanier is a major part of the Tri State Water Dispute.
Credit photo by Mike Gonzalez
The Chattahoochee River and it's connection to Lake Lanier is a major part of the Tri State Water Dispute.

“The governors didn’t want to talk about it, their staffs. Why should Alabama talk about it Georgia and Florida aren’t going to talk about it, and Florida and Georgia aren’t going to talk about it during litigation,” he said. 

Rogers said cooperation is key to making the plan work. 

“In the vernacular of the South, All the mules need to be pulling the wagon in the same direction when we’re under stress like that. Meaning, all three states, all the local jurisdictions within the states and the Corps of Engineers all need to be working toward the same suit of results,” he said. 

The plan suggests a lot more flexibility and coordination in how water is released from reservoirs throughout the system. Clayton said the goal is to the minimum water flow levels even during drought. 

“What we’re thinking, is with the sustainable water management plan we will be able to meet those flows because those flows are critical to those plants in their operations, whether it be direct process water or cooling water, thermal water or in the case of hydroelectric in actual generation,” he said. 

A Stakeholder's Group consultant suggested modifying the water intake pipes at Alabama Power’s Farley Nuclear Plant. The ACF Stakeholders' Group says it was not included in their final plan. 

Rogers said water is vital for that facility.  

“That facility has to have a good water supply for its process water to generate steam to drive the turbines and for its cooling water," he said. "That’s critical, no one wants a nuke plant to go south.” 

The plant produces almost 20 percent of Alabama Power’s electricity. We are getting into what is typically the dry season and Clayton said they have a recommendation for the Army Corps of Engineers to help around this time of year. 

“What we propose is that the Corps hold an additional 2 feet, particularly in the winter season up at Lake Lanier north of Atlanta and also an additional two feet up at West Point and possibly another two feet here at Walter F. George,” he said. 

Lake Lanier
Credit Molly Samuel (WABE)

Clayton said that should make a difference for everyone downstream from Atlanta. 

“If we hold that additional water upstream during the wet season then we know we will have that to sustain the flows and sustain those industries as we get into the dry seasons of July into October,” he said. 

Clayton said that is particularly true for the oyster industry in Florida. The sunshine state closed its oyster beds until the year 2025. One reason is less river water flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. That’s making the gulf water too salty. The decision is another chapter of the water war between Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. 

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