Above the Waterline: Water wars reach possible end, as next drought looms

While you were enjoying holiday events in December, and perhaps staying abreast of the impeachment proceedings, a significant decision was announced in the 30-year “water wars” among Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

Georgia officials reacted jubilantly to the news that a federal judge appointed as a fact-finding referee by the U.S. Supreme Court sided with them in litigation brought by Florida over the allocation of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin. In other words: how water in the basin, which straddles the three states, should be distributed among competing users during droughts. Recommendations in the ruling made by Judge Paul Kelly Jr. will be considered no later than 2021.

Not for the first time in the past three decades, I wondered if this was really the beginning of the end – at least for the legal cases that have kept untold numbers of lawyers employed for the past three decades, spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. In a nutshell, the downstream states in the river basin (Florida and Alabama) have long believed that metro Atlanta is taking, and plans to take, more than a “reasonable” share of water to fuel its growth at the expense of their communities and industries. Florida’s lawyers want a cap on upstream water use in metro Atlanta and also on farmers in the Flint River basin to protect their local economies and ecology.

In my capacity as the (now-retired) director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper – concerned about the sustainability of the entire river basin – I have followed and participated in the fits, starts, bumps, dead-ends and occasional successes of this prolonged water dispute.

Highlights include: the filing of initial lawsuits in 1990; attempts to negotiate a tristate compact (including a marathon meeting with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich about compliance with federal environmental laws and the need for more science); the severe drought of 1998-2003; the implosion of the compact negotiations; the exceptional drought of 2006-2009 (when Lake Lanier was down 21 feet); major court decisions in 2009 and 2011; the creation of the collaborative ACF Stakeholders in 2009; the much-lauded, but limited, state conservation law passed in 2010; the severe drought of 2010-2012; American Rivers’ naming of the ACF Basin as the “most endangered river” in the nation in 2016; and now the ruling by Judge Kelly.

I have learned, along the way, that few officials and their lawyers are willing to negotiate a solution that might give an “extra” drop to any stakeholders who are not their constituents or clients. For those in charge, it has largely been a zero-sum game focused on political boundaries.

A bright light in this long-running dispute has been the ACF Stakeholders: a group of diverse water-using interests in the river basin who have worked tirelessly to develop a consensus on how to divvy up limited water resources during droughts. The group’s Sustainable Water Management Plan is an excellent, fact-based guide. Sadly, the governors of all three states (read: their lawyers) have, thus far, been unwilling to support it and Judge Kelly failed to mention the ACF Stakeholders in his 96-page ruling. Fortunately, the group persists, continuing to push for “equitable solutions that balance economic, ecological and social values.”

For its water supply, Atlanta relies on rivers that are very small, as they flow through the metro region, not far from their headwaters. Given our geography, we have no other choice but to use our water efficiently. Through a water planning district, metro Atlanta has corralled its fifteen counties and 95 cities, over the past eighteen years, to cooperate on water issues; good, but not outstanding, work has reduced regional water demand. The Great Recession and serial droughts also helped curtail wasteful ways. Despite Judge Kelly’s glowing assessment of the district’s conservation efforts, often reading like the report of a local booster, a careful review of the water plans and their implementation to date do not overly impress.

In its third Filling the Water Gap report (2019), Chattahoochee Riverkeeper offers a dashboard of water conservation data, missed opportunities and recommendations, along with successes. Notable problems: local performance audits are not required; conservation rate structures exist, but aren’t as effective as they could be; water system losses are being tallied, but robust programs to fix leaks are few and far between – the city of Atlanta still leaks nearly 20 percent of its drinking water from broken pipes; only one-fifth of the water-wasting toilets in the metro region have been replaced; and a robust, transparent data collection system that could improve public engagement and water-related decision-making does not exist.

The point is that metro leaders can and must do much more to ensure that our region is sustainable, climate resilient and a good upstream neighbor. The question is whether a resolution of the water war litigation will bring complacency and a return to business as usual.

Recently, the metro district decided to abandon its annual audits of local water conservation programs. It’s a well-known axiom that you can’t effectively manage what you don’t measure.

Today, Lake Lanier is full and we are experiencing an abundance of rain with too much in some flooded areas; however, the record and climate models show that another serious drought looms, just a few months or a few years away. Virtually alone among all the parties, the ACF Stakeholders continues to plan for that eventuality.

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in INtown. 

2 Comments
  1. Clearly, an effective water conservation program has yet to be, and needs to be, fully implemented in metro Atlanta. At the same time, government and business leaders need to stop intentionally inviting hordes of new residents to move into the area. We’ve got enough. We’re full. Adding more people to the mix will only make it much harder to solve our already long list of serious problems: nightmarish traffic, water shortages, loss of natural areas and wildlife, diminishing affordable housing, the 7th worst air pollution of any American city… It’s time to close the door for awhile and get our own house in order.

  2. Thank you for all your hard work.

    I have always a good time to fix a
    Problem is in the time of plenty. Now is that time.
    Atlanta must be the source of the solution. They must spend the money to make that happen. The state must be a willing participant.

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