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Water wars could divide region
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If you’re like me you can’t wait till Southeastern Conference football starts back in the fall. Many people believe it just can’t get any better than watching Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina duke it out on the gridiron.
Then again, maybe it can get better. What about watching these SEC states duke it out over water rights?
For more than 19 years, Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been fighting over how much water from the Chattahoochee River each state has a right to withdraw.
The Chattahoochee originates in the northeast Georgia mountains and serves as the major source of Lake Lanier, located above Atlanta, before moving downstream to separate Georgia and Alabama and flowing across the Florida panhandle into the Gulf of Mexico.
Built by the federal government in the 1950’s, Lake Lanier is the Atlanta region’s main source of drinking water, serving the needs of nearly 4 million people, including a staggering three-fourths of metro Atlanta residents.
According to Alabama and Florida, therein lies the problem — Georgia (specifically Atlanta) is drawing too much water out of Lake Lanier and not leaving enough for their neighbors downstream.
A federal lawsuit filed by Alabama in 1990 and later joined by Florida as a plaintiff, seeking legal relief of the tri-state water war was recently ruled on by a U.S. District Judge in Minnesota and generally did not bode well for Georgia.
The judge ruled that the original mandated purposes for the construction of Lake Lanier — hydroelectric power, navigation and flood control were not being followed by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers when they granted Georgia drinking water rights. Because Lake Lanier was built by the federal government without assistance from Georgia for these specific purposes, the Corps should have gotten congressional approval before allowing the lake to become metro Atlanta’s primary source of water.
To make matters worse, the judge gave Congress three years to work out the dispute or Georgia would be reduced back to withdrawal levels from the early 1970’s when Atlanta was less than half its current size and before the Corps started issuing increases in withdrawal levels. If this were to happen, even the judge admitted that his ruling could be devastating for the region.
In response to the ruling, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed a three phased strategy; appeal the judge’s ruling, get Congress to end the impasse and resume negotiations with the other states.
With the appeal process generally thought to be unwinnable and Congress unlikely to act on such an issue without consensus from the states involved, restarting negotiations with the other states seems inevitable. Realizing this fact, Gov. Perdue has invited the other two states back to the negotiating table.
While it may seem Georgia is at a disadvantage at this stage in the water battle, many scenarios still remain that could influence the outcome of the war.
For instance, it has been suggested that if access to Lake Lanier is restricted, Georgia could withdraw at other areas of the river above or below the lake and beyond federal jurisdiction.
Another suggestion has been to tap into the Tennessee River in northwest Georgia, where a disputed boundary line might result in legal action to move Georgia’s border a mile or so north into Tennessee, drawing yet another SEC state into the water war.
Inter-basin transfers, such as drawing water from the Savannah River and pumping it back to the Atlanta region, is now being looked at again, which will surely raise the ire of fellow SEC state South Carolina as well as Georgians living in that region.
While the options that are ultimately exercised will be important, it’s clear that we are now in the fourth quarter of this epic battle and that this is one game no one can afford to lose.

Carter represents District 159 in the Savannah area. It does not cover Liberty County, but the lawmaker has announced plans to run for Senate District 1, which does cover most of Liberty. He can be reached at Coverdell Legislative Office Building, room 508, Atlanta, GA 30334. His Capitol office number is (404) 656-0213.
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