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Opinion: Prepare for more water fights
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The 30-plus-year water wars dispute between Georgia, Florida and Alabama is going to the U.S. Supreme Court for oral arguments on Feb. 22, 2021. - photo by Scott Rogers

Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but Georgia and Florida are headed back to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to argue about water.

OK, so maybe you have heard it before. The two states have been fighting in court over water allocations from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin for more than 30 years now, and there still isn’t any guarantee a resolution to the issue is forthcoming any time soon.

Monday will mark the second time in four years the justices of the Supreme Court have heard arguments in this particular aspect of the long-running litigation. Twice the Supreme Court has appointed special judicial experts to make recommendations, twice those experts have sided with Georgia in the fight over water. And still the case is unresolved.

At stake in the arguments before the nation’s highest court are billions of dollars of potential economic impact, as well as the potential to dramatically change the future for thousands of people in both states.

The issues are complex, but at the heart of the litigation is the fact that Florida believes Georgia is taking too much water from the river basin, and as a result destroying the Apalachicola Bay fishing industry, which at one time was renowned for its oysters. Fresh water plays a crucial role in the bay’s delicate ecological balance, and Florida says Georgia isn’t letting enough fresh water find its way across the state line.

For its part, Georgia needs the water from the basin to keep the fertile farmland in the southwest portion of the state hydrated, so that it can continue to be a major part of the state’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry. And farther north in the river basin, it needs water for the booming metro Atlanta region, where the basin provides water for some 70% of the metro area’s population.

Georgia contends that Florida’s problems in Apalachicola are not solely the result of reduced water flows, but also reflect the realities of over harvesting in years past, climate change and the damage done by the massive BP oil spill.

A ruling either way could impact state economies to the tune of billions of dollars, which helps to explain why hundreds of millions have been spent in litigation over the water issue.

Yet despite the fact the current specific case has been on the docket for some eight years, and previous legal challenges on the same issues, some of which also involved Alabama, date back to 1990, there’s still no guarantee the arguments presented Monday will bring about a definitive resolution.

There remain other challenges in lower courts, some of which involve the Army Corps of Engineers and its management of water flow, which may prolong the fight for years to come, in which case the legal bills, and the frustration factor, will continue to climb.

Unfortunately, the scenario being played out between Georgia and Florida may become more common in years to come as climate change alters the environmental landscape.

Rather than being consumed with partisan squabbling over political power, the Congress of the United States should be developing a long-range water allocation and resource plan for the nation, one that addresses issue of shared access to water supply, thoroughly examines the role of the Army Corps of Engineers, acknowledges that changes in climate are happening and plans for the hard realities the nation may face in the future if water supplies are not addressed now.

Of course, the odds of that being a priority in the governmental dysfunction of Washington are about the same as finding Apalachicola oysters in Lake Lanier.

Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager

  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown

  • David George

  • Mandy Harris

  • Brent Hoffman

  • J.C. Smith

  • Tom Vivelo

Monday’s upcoming Supreme Court session also serves as a reminder that metro Atlanta and much of North Georgia are far too dependent on the ACF basin for water. In times of severe drought, the state pays great lip service to the long-term need for alternative water sources, but the development of viable alternatives take years, and once the rains come again those issues no longer seem to be priorities for anyone.

Remember all the time, money and effort that went into planning and building the Glades reservoir to serve the Hall County area, only to see it all eventually shelved and collecting dust.

New reservoirs are not the only options for increasing water resources. Much has been done in recent years to reduce rates of consumption, especially in the Atlanta area. And there are proven alternatives for infrastructure options, such as recycling of wastewater to make it potable, that demand to be explored.

But talking about water needs decades down the road isn’t the sort of politically exciting stuff that gets politicians re-elected in the state, so instead we’ll watch our lawmakers fight over election drop boxes and the specter of casino gambling while the big picture water issue is ignored until the next drought comes along.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on Monday hears yet more arguments in a fight between states that is now decades old, with no certainty of a resolution any time soon. Let’s hope that when, and if, they ever do rule in Georgia’s favor, we’ve got water enough to make ice for our glasses so as to toast the victory.

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