History of Water Wars

The water dispute between Alabama, Georgia, and Florida is in its 27th year. It is based on a U.S. Corps of Engineers’ decision to reallocate water usage at Lake Lanier (Chattahoochee River) to provide contracted amounts of water to Georgia (primarily to the Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area). When the Corps of Engineers decision was made for reallocating this water resource Alabama filed a lawsuit and Florida signed on as a plaintiff. In addition, Alabama raised concerns about water withdrawals from the Alabama – Coosa – Tallapoosa (ACT) river basin as well as Georgia’s plans to build regional reservoirs in the ACT and Apalachicola – Chattahoochee- Flint (ACF) river basins. This was the beginning of the “water wars”. As the Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area (AMSA) has grown water usage has increased and has now reached a point that Georgia’s water consumption has validated the concerns of those who filed the original lawsuits.

1) A river/reservoir located in a community is a tremendous natural resource. It has an immense value that (in one way or another) impacts most individuals in our communities. In fact, it could be defined as our area’s most valuable resource. The Coosa River is one of Alabama’s most important water resources and we need to make every effort to protect the quality and quantity of it.
2) We are concerned that Georgia has plans to take water from the Etowah River in quantities that could be detrimental to the Coosa River. Reduced flows to the Coosa River could result in lower quality and quantity of water leading to detrimental environmental, health, safety, economic, navigation, and recreational issues.
3) We are concerned that in past dry weather and/or drought conditions Georgia exceeded the amount of water they were allowed to take from the Etowah River (according to their contract with the U.S. Corps of Engineers). It is our understanding that this was admitted by the Corps of Engineers in response to questions asked by Senator Jeff Sessions during a U.S. Senate “Hearing”.
4) We are concerned that there is not a minimum flow requirement near the beginning of the Coosa River at Mayo’s Bar. (Mayo’s Bar is a lock used as a USGS flow measurement station located near Rome, Georgia below the point where the Oostanaula and Etowah Rivers join to form the Coosa River). In their January 2013 letter to the U.S. Corps of Engineers requesting more water from Lake Allatoona (Etowah River) and permission to construct another reservoir downstream of Allatoona Dam (the proposed Richland Creek Reservoir), Georgia stated that the average annual Coosa River flow at Rome, Georgia is 6,475cfs. Using this as a benchmark, Georgia officials say that increased withdrawals from the Etowah River will have no significant impact on the average annual daily flow in the Coosa River. However, Georgia does not mention a minimum Coosa River flow rate in their request for more water. We believe minimum flow requirements need to be established to avoid potential damage to the Coosa River due to extremely low flows that can occur during dry weather conditions.
Economists say an inadequate water supply, or even the perception of future water supply shortages, can cost an area like the AMSA billions of dollars. Because of this fact, the AMSA has designated the availability of water as one of their highest priorities. Consequently, the state of Georgia has budgeted millions of dollars to ensure they have adequate supplies of water in the Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area (AMSA).
We are hopeful that a settlement will be reached between the states involved that are mutually beneficial. However, it appears likely that the settlement of these issues will be based on legal actions/decisions. The following is a list of recent legal actions and other important issues that have occurred regarding the water dispute.

2009 – Judge Paul Magnuson (District Court Judge Jacksonville, Florida) ruled that the U.S. Corps of Engineers did not have a legal right to allocate water from Lake Lanier to the AMSA.

2011 – The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta over-ruled Judge Magnuson’s decision stating the Corps of Engineers did have the right to allocate water from Lake Lanier to the AMSA.

2012 – Alabama and Florida challenged the decision by the Circuit Court of Appeals and requested the case be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court said they would not “hear” the case and ruled that the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision would stand.

2013 – In a January, 2013 letter from the Governor of Georgia (accompanied with supporting documentation and studies from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division) a request was made to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works for more water for the AMSA from Lake Allatoona on the Etowah River. According to this formal request, Georgia wants to increase the amount of water being allocated to the AMSA by approximately 2.5X to 3X compared to the previous annual daily average taken from the Etowah River. In addition, Georgia requested permission to construct a water supply and recreational reservoir (the proposed Richland Creek Reservoir) downstream of Allatoona Dam. Like the Hickory Log Creek reservoir located upstream of Allatoona Dam, the Richland Creek reservoir would also receive water from the Etowah River.

2013 – March, 2013 – The Hickory Log Creek Reservoir was officially dedicated. The reservoir is located in Canton, Georgia, approximately 30 miles north of Atlanta, and is a 416 acre reservoir that is both a “permitted” water supply reservoir and recreational area for fishing, boating etc. The reservoir receives water from the Etowah River and has been approved to supply water to both the City of Canton and the Cobb-County Marietta Water Authority. As mentioned previously, the reservoir is located upstream of Allatoona Dam.

2013– October, 2013 – Florida sued Georgia regarding the devastation of its oyster industry in the Apalachicola Bay. Florida said the reason for this was Georgia’s excess use of water from the ACF basin. Florida officials said Georgia was taking too much water from the ACF basin (especially from the Chattahoochee River) leading to decreased flows in the Apalachicola River and decreased amounts of fresh water reaching the Apalachicola Bay estuary. According to Florida officials, the increased salinity in the Apalachicola Bay estuary caused ecological damage resulting in a major decrease in the bay’s oyster population. Florida officials said this caused an estimated 70 million dollar annual loss of revenue to Florida’s oyster industry. Florida’s claim was substantiated by studies conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) leading to a federal disaster declaration in 2013.

2013 – December, 2013 – At Alabama Governor Bentley’s request a detailed action plan was written by the Alabama Water Agencies Working Group (AWAWG). This document called “MAPPING THE FUTURE OF ALABAMA WATER RESOURCES MANAGEMENT” was given to Governor Bentley December 1st 2013 and was officially “rolled out” April 17th 2014. This action plan will be used to develop Alabama’s first “Comprehensive Water Management Plan”. (Alabama is the only southeastern state without a plan of this type). The implementation of a “Comprehensive Water Management Plan” is essential in litigation involving water disputes. (Georgia and Florida have well developed plans that will be extremely beneficial when the various lawsuits reach the court system).

2014 – November 3, 2014 – It was announced that the U.S. Supreme Court would take up Florida’s lawsuit against Georgia involving Georgia’s use of water from the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, Flint River basin (ACF basin) and the related decrease of fresh water to the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay. As mentioned previously, this caused a collapse of its annual 70 million dollar oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay leading to a federal disaster declaration.

2014 – November 7, 2014 – Georgia sued the U.S. Corps of Engineers regarding the amount of water they would be allowed to use from the Etowah River. More specifically, Georgia asked a federal judge to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate the state’s request for additional water supply storage at Lake Allatoona on the Etowah River. The lawsuit stated “The Corps refusal to properly address current and future water supply needs hampers the State of Georgia’s ability to properly manage its valuable water resources and potentially puts the health, safety and welfare of Georgia’s citizens at risk”. In addition, the lawsuit stated that “if Lake Allatoona can’t meet Georgia’s current and future water supply needs, the state would need to develop new reservoirs and other water supply infrastructure that would require a planning period of 15 to 25 years.”

2014 – December, 2014 – The Corps of Engineers released a draft of the “Final Environmental Impact Statement” that is included in their “Master Water Control Manual” for the Alabama, Coosa, Tallapoosa (ACT) river basin. This is an extremely comprehensive document that was reviewed by many organizations.

2014 – December, 2014 – The United States Supreme Court announced that Ralph Lancaster (an 84 year 1955 Harvard Law Graduate from the state of Maine) would be appointed as a “Special Master” to research and make recommendations to the US Supreme Court regarding Florida’s lawsuit against Georgia (regarding the reduced flow of water from the Apalachicola River to Apalachicola Bay and the resulting damage to Florida’s oyster industry). So-called “Special Masters” are representatives of the court that conduct research and make recommendations to the court in cases involving difficult and/or specialized issues. Mr. Lancaster did not waste time. He called attorneys representing the interests of Florida and Georgia shortly after he was appointed and requested the following involving the water dispute:

  • All discovery documents be completed by July 2015.
  • All depositions be completed by October 2015.
  • All motions be filed by January 2016.

Apparently, legal teams representing Georgia and Florida said that this schedule was too aggressive. Mr. Lancaster said the schedule was realistic and if they had time problems increase the size of their staffs. Mr. Lancaster also asked the two states to make every attempt to solve this problem in order to avoid his intervention and a resulting U.S. Supreme Court Decision.

2015 – March 16th- Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia met with Alabama Governor Robert Bentley to discuss the water dispute and possible solutions. Governor Bentley was not specific in what was discussed but called the meeting cordial. It was also announced that Governor Deal had requested a meeting with Governor Rick Scott of Georgia to discuss issues involving the water dispute.

2015 – April – The Atlanta Journal- Constitution reported in April that Governors Deal and Bentley discussed Governor Deal’s plan to build a system of state reservoirs in north Georgia to increase Georgia’s water storage supply. (Georgia has already committed $300 million to the reservoirs, which have caused major concerns in Alabama and Florida that Georgia is trying to hoard water resulting in reduced water flows to Alabama and Florida).

2015 – May 4th – The Corps of Engineers signed the “Record of Decision” for the final environmental impact statement (FEIS). The signing of the document basically approved the Corps of Engineers pending Water Control Manuals for the ACT River Basin.

2015 – May 7th – Alabama Governor Robert Bentley filed a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Water Control Manual involving the regulation of water to the Etowah and Coosa River. Specifically, the lawsuit involves the storage, control and release of water at Allatoona Dam on the Etowah River in Georgia. (Allatoona Dam is USACOE facility).

2015 – May 27th – Florida U.S. Representative Gwen Graham (Franklin County) filed a bill that would require the Corps of Engineers to consider freshwater flows to the Apalachicola River basin as part of the corps water management plans. The measure was supported by 20 other members of the Florida delegation.

2015 – June 9th – Governor Deal of Georgia met with Governor Rick Scott of Florida regarding the water dispute. Details of what was discussed were not released to the public.

2015 – December 17th – Alabama U.S. Senator Richard Shelby had a paragraph added to the 1.1 trillion dollar omnibus spending bill that would have required the Justice Department to audit all water usage contract violations reported by the Corps of Engineers in the Alabama- Coosa- Tallapoosa basin. However, this addition to the spending bill was challenged by the Georgia congressional delegation and with the approval of the speaker of House of Representatives was deleted from the bill. Sen. Shelby responded by saying that “ farmers, environmentalists, power companies and other constituents in Alabama and Florida have expressed sincere and well-founded concerns that local water supply entities in Georgia are violating and significantly disadvantaging the citizens, commence and environments of Alabama and Florida as a result. Senator Shelby went on to say that the appropriations subcommittee he chairs will investigate withdrawals of water from reservoirs located upstream from Alabama and Florida. In his letter, Shelby asked that Justice Department officials meet with him in January about enforcement of water usage agreements.

2016 – June 21st- It was formally announced that “Florida and Georgia will confront each other in court in October 2016. (U.S. Supreme Court “Special Master” Ralph Lancaster filed a case management order to this effect Monday, June 20th). The order sets a pre-trail schedule for the proceedings and sets October 31st as the opening day of the trail. The case management order does not specify how long the trail might last. To this point, Alabama is not a part of this lawsuit.

2016 – On May 9th 2016 the State of Alabama (and other entities) sued the U.S. Corps of Engineers regarding provisions in the (May 4th 2015) Alabama, Coosa, Tallapoosa (ACT) “Water Control Manual” that would allow Allatoona Dam (on the Etowah River in Georgia) to “hold” water back during dry seasons of the year thereby reducing the flow of water to the Coosa River. The lawsuit mentioned the many adverse impacts retaining this water in Georgia would have on the State of Alabama e.g. environmental, economic impacts etc. (The EPA also expressed their concerns that this provision in the new “Water Control Manual” could cause environmental damage downstream on Allatoona Dam).

2017 – In February 2017 U.S. Supreme Court “Special Master” Ralph Lancaster stated that his recommendation to the U.S. Supreme Court will be in favor of Georgia’s legal position regarding Florida’s lawsuit against Georgia regarding reduced water flow to the Apalachicola River. Mr. Lancaster said that Florida had “failed to show that a consumption cap was needed” on Georgia’s Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers to protect Florida’s Apalachicola River. Florida had “argued” that increased water consumption by Georgia (especially from the Atlanta area) from the Chattahoochee and Flint River systems was causing decreased flows to the Apalachicola River leading to extensive damage to the Apalachicola River ecosystem. (The Chattahoochee and Flint River join near the Florida, Georgia line to form the Apalachicola River).

SUMMARY: We understand the importance of water to the citizens and economy of Georgia but we believe it is imperative that they obtain the water necessary for their rapid growth and economic development without damaging rivers, lakes and streams in Alabama. The Neely Henry Lake Association is hopeful that a “win-win” solution can be developed for all parties/states involved. However, one thing is certain, lake associations, political leaders, environmental/conservation organizations, the media, businesses, industries, agricultural organizations, angling associations etc. need to be well informed about these issues. One major goal of the Neely Henry Lake Association is to facilitate the transfer of information about these issues.
Researched and written by Gene Phifer, President NHLA, 6/2017

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