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Genesis: Tri-state water wars kicked off 17 years ago

Georgia wanted to build reservoir; Alabama filed suit

POSTED: October 26, 2007 5:06 a.m.

The legal wrangling over the water in the Chattahoochee River is not new. The states of Alabama, Florida and Georgia, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, have been at odds over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin for 17 years.

The various lawsuits have been consolidated into the Middle District of Florida and will be heard by a Minnesota judge appointed to the cases.

Because of the lawsuits, the water control plan for the river basin is stuck in a time warp. While there has been an interim operating plan, a full update of the plan has been on hold.

Georgia’s two U.S. senators have sought an update of the plan from the corps, which refused while the states were involved in mediation.

The last plan was written when Georgia had a population of 6.4 million people. Since that time, the state has been the fastest growing east of the Rockies and has a population of about 9 million today. Most are concentrated in the Atlanta area, where a majority of the water comes from the Chattahoochee River.

But what made the three states such bitter enemies in the quest for water?

In the mid-1980s, Gov. Joe Frank Harris appointed a Growth Strategies Commission to make recommendations for the state’s future.

The commission, headed by Peachtree City businessman Joel Cowan, recommended during the 1986-88 drought that the state construct additional reservoirs to meet future water needs.

Harris said that at the same time, Leonard Ledbetter, then the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, suggested the state develop a water budget.

"I remember I said ‘Water budget, what are you talking about?’" Harris said in an interview with The Times.

Ledbetter wanted to have an account of water flowing into and out of the state.

Ledbetter returned to Harris with a recommendation for 15 regional reservoirs in the state. The first reservoir was to be built in Haralson County near the Alabama border. That reservoir became the basis of Alabama’s first lawsuit against Georgia in federal court.

"I’ve never understood why they (Alabama) didn’t understand that while water was taken out, it was being stored in the same basin," Harris said.

Harris said he never would have dreamed that the battle would have continued for 17 years through the administrations of three succeeding governors.

"There’s no way in the world," Harris said. "We had meetings and negotiations and thought we were making progress."

Harris thinks the neighboring states had another motive.

"It was really an economic initiative for them," he said. "If they could hold us up on water, they could hold us up on bringing industry into the state that they might have a shot at."

Harold Reheis was deputy director of the state Environmental Protection Division when the tri-state battle began. He became director in 1991 and was a key negotiator in the water battle until his retirement in 2003.

Reheis, now a senior vice president with Joe Tanner & Associates, an Atlanta consulting firm, believes the state would have a much better water supply if those reservoirs had been built.

"Unfortunately, Alabama saw the first reservoir as a lightning rod," Reheis said. "The corps was willing to allocate some more water out of Allatoona and Lanier to Georgia cities and counties at the time. The combination of those and the West Georgia reservoir made Alabama decide they weren’t comfortable with any of this."

He said the conflict with Alabama and Florida took his agency’s attention away from further action on the reservoirs.

"We in EPD were focused on other things, so we didn’t focus on additional regional reservoirs in the state," Reheis said. "If there had been the ability to put them in place, they certainly could have provided relief from situations like the drought we’re in right now."

Reheis believes the current drought will become the benchmark by which future droughts will be measured.

"The drought that had the most impact, what we call the drought of record in the northern Chattahoochee, was the drought of 1986 to 1988," Reheis said. "The drought of 2006 to 2007 is turning out to be worse than that from the top of the basin to the bottom of the basin. If you take into account what is happening in the Flint River basin, I think we’re going to see that this is a record-setting drought from the top of the Chattahoochee in White County to the bottom of Lake Seminole."



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