Here we go again: The tri-state water wars, Round ... whatever this one is.
Florida faced Georgia on the field Saturday in Jacksonville, and now in a Maine courtroom starting Monday for the latest round in the battle over who gets more of the Chattahoochee River’s precious resource.
It’s not yet clear if this is the last legal clash in a duel now in its third decade. But this ruling could decide if Georgia will have to give up more of what flows the length of the state from the mountains through Lake Lanier to the Gulf of Mexico.
Though Georgia won the last and most significant court case to date, there’s no guarantee the next ruling will go our state’s way. With a new drought gripping the region, and a growing economy hanging in the balance, a court decision that turns off the spigot would be devastating.
The dispute involves how much of the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola system should be released from dams on Lakes Lanier and Seminole to flow into the Gulf. Georgia needs water to meet the needs of growing communities of North Georgia and metro Atlanta, where a population reaching toward 6 million drives a residential and commercial thirst for water. South Georgia, meanwhile, relies on these rivers to irrigate its farms.
Florida wants more fresh water flowing into Apalachicola Bay for the shellfish harvest that supports its seafood industry. That is the crux of the dispute, and why Florida filed suit in the U.S. Supreme Court three years ago.
The river also is vital to Alabama’s power plants along the Chattahoochee. That state has filed a friend of the court brief siding with Florida as part of a separate dispute over water in the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa basin.
Now after years of posturing, negotiations and millions in legal fees, the case will be heard this week by Ralph Lancaster, a Portland lawyer the Supreme Court chose to preside over the case.
It’s “probably the end game,” according to Clyde Morris, attorney for the Lake Lanier Association.
Many Georgia stakeholders may feel confident the ruling will result in another victory. In 2009, a federal judge decreed Georgia had no right to use as much water as it did, but a Court of Appeals overturned that ruling two years later.
Meanwhile, the states have attempted on several occasions to negotiate a way to share the water fairly, though pending lawsuits have quelled a desire to compromise. Florida blew off a meeting with a mediator last month, placing all of its bets on winning in court.
Even if there were such a deal struck, there may not be enough water to go around. As the parties gather to litigate, a serious drought has gripped the Southeast for the third time in the last decade. Previous droughts increased the states’ urgency to forge a deal, knowing the finite nature of the water supply put each at risk. Plans were drawn to fill new reservoirs, including the proposed Glades project in North Hall County, but the expense and environmental obstacles have kept them from completion.
Meanwhile, the Corps of Engineers has been reworking its water use manual for Lanier, scheduled to be completed by next spring. That’s likely when Congress will get involved, and where Georgia is outnumbered by Florida’s and Alabama’s delegations.
Thus, our state faces a potential double whammy: Rain totals 10 inches below normal for the year, dropping Lanier about that same amount below full pool; and a court case that could leave the state even drier.
Though Atlanta and the rest of Georgia depend on the river basin for drinking and commercial water needs, Gainesville and Hall County have even more at stake. The area’s tourism and the value of lake properties are all tied to a full, healthy lake. Droughts and heavier water releases can leave Lake Lanier’s shoreline a muddy mess, driving off visitors and leaving docks high and dry.
Georgia has spent $24 million just this year in legal fees to battle the case. All three states have invested treasure, time and political capital over their inability to strike a deal to share water, their fates now resting on a judge’s decision. It’s a high price to pay, and depending on the ruling, it could get even costlier for some.
This judge may decide to follow what the 2009 ruling tried to accomplish: Force the states to work out the dispute through negotiation or mediation, lest any face the “nuclear option” of losing too much of its water claim. But they have been too far apart to reach an accord, which is why 27 years and millions of dollars later, it all comes down to this.
“Once they see each other’s evidence, there might be a greater willingness to find some middle ground,” Morris said. “I’m not sure that will happen. I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it.”
And even if there is a winner and a loser in court, Mother Nature still has the final say as to whether any of us will get as much water as we want.
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