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Last updated 5:50AM ET
February 25, 2021
Drought Intensifies AL, FL, GA Water Sharing Dispute
(APR - Alabama Public Radio ) - The record drought gripping the Southeast has pushed a three-state water fight to a new level, pitting state against state in a legal battle that pins the federal government in the middle.

The governors of Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been locked in a tug-of-war for almost two decades over federal water resources, and the drought gripping much of the Southeast has intensified the legal battle.

Like three thirsty children trying to drink from a single hose, even the most minor disruption in the flow has a ripple effect. And Georgia's decision Friday to file a lawsuit demanding that the U.S. Army Corps slow the draining of Georgia's reservoirs was sure to set off a new round of litigation as each state scrambles to make its case.

"The stakes are at the highest they have been," said Todd Silliman, an Atlanta lawyer who represents Georgia in the court battle. "We haven't been facing these types of depletions of our reservoirs since this litigation has begun."

The bickering among the three states started in the late 1980s when the Corps unrolled a new plan guiding how three Georgia reservoirs that feed the region should be used.

Alabama challenged the plan in 1990, but over the next few years, state leaders were unable to cobble together a permanent pact. Instead, they adopted what Corps Maj. Daren Payne called a "live and let live" system.

"It was essentially: What you have been taking out, keep taking out, and what you need, go ahead and take," said Payne, the deputy commander of the Corps' Mobile office. "But after a few droughts, live and let live is not really viable any more."

There are now five pending federal lawsuits involving the region's water, but despite a drought that has spread through the region, there is no permanent agreement in sight.

Georgia has sought to convince the Corps to curb water releases from Lake Lanier, Atlanta's main water source, which is within three months of depleting its water storage.

More than a billion gallons flow downstream from the north Georgia lake every day, much of it flowing southwest to Alabama and eventually to Florida. The Corps bases its water releases on two requirements: The minimum flow needed to operate a coal-fired power plant in Florida and mandates to protect two mussel species in a Florida river.

In recent years, Florida has complained the state is not sending enough water downstream to protect the endangered and threatened mussels on the banks of a drying river. And Alabama has contended it needs more water to cope with the dry conditions.

In the middle of the fight is the Corps, which has said it is trying to do its best to follow federal guidelines that dictate how much water should be released.

But a move this week by the Corps may have signaled a policy shift.

Under pressure from Georgia's federal lawmakers, the Corps said this week it will update the formula it uses to guide how Georgia and Alabama share water in a major river basin. Georgians, who have long argued new data is necessary to account for their state's rapid growth, cheered the news. But it will likely lead to more legal action from Alabama officials.

Gov. Bob Riley called the development "unacceptable" and lashed out at Georgia officials. Praising the water limits implemented by Birmingham during the drought, he said water authorities in metro Atlanta should have ordered restrictions earlier.

"Atlanta can't spend all summer during a drought watering their lawns and flowers and then expect someone else to bail them out," he said. "If Atlanta had done what Birmingham did in June, then Atlanta's problem today would be much less severe."

Georgia was under statewide water restrictions in April that limited outdoor watering to three days a week. By May the city of Atlanta allowed watering only on weekends, and in September environmental officials banned virtually all outdoor watering through the northern half of the state.

Meanwhile, Georgians are frustrated that billions of gallons of water in the state's reservoirs is being sent to Florida and Alabama two states without statewide water restrictions while Georgia residents are facing unprecedented restrictions.

"No one is sacrificing, no one is sharing the pain like the people of North Georgia," said Perdue.


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