Sharing Water in Alabama,
Georgia and Florida: An Update on the Tri-State Water Wars
Tammy L. Shaw, J.D.
Unlike the western regions of the nation, the southeastern United States
has historically enjoyed plentiful water resources. However, changing
climatic conditions worldwide has plunged the southeast into first stage
drought conditions, with some areas suffering from severe drought conditions.
Across much of this region, streams, rivers and lakes, in recent years,
have been at the lowest levels ever recorded. This condition has continued
to worsen since the late 1980s as the southeast experiences mild
winters, very hot summers, and below average rainfall. The persistency
of the drought conditions, coupled with increases in water use by industries
and growing populations has resulted in a controversy over water quantity
and allocation between several southeastern states.
In 1997, the states of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida agreed to form
two interstate water compacts, the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa Compact
(ACT) and the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Compact (ACF), to hammer
out agreements on how water resources, shared by the states, should
be allocated between the three states. The dispute over surface water
usage, commonly referred to as the tri-state water wars,
began in 1990 when the city of Atlanta, after assessing its projected
population growth and future water needs, sought a permit from the Army
Corps of Engineers (Corps) to create new reservoirs on the Chattahoochee
River, the Flint River, and the Coosa River that would hold back an
additional 529 million gallons of water a day to be stored in Lake Sidney
Lanier, Atlantas major source of drinking water. Atlantas
long-term plan included an increase in withdrawals of 50% from the Chattahoochee
and the Flint by the year 2010.
This proposal and announcement by the Corps set off a dispute between
Atlanta and its downstream neighbors, Alabama and Florida. Alabama viewed
the plan as a threat to its own water supply, possibly stunting industrial
and population growth in the state and resulting in degraded water quality
due to the decrease in water flow. Alabama argued that the downstream
flow already brings with it Atlantas pollution and that a decrease
in the water flow would mean that the pollutants would be even less
diluted. Florida joined the dispute contending that the plan to siphon
off more water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers would deplete
the flow into Floridas Apalachicola Bay and would critically injure
the states $70 million oyster industry.
Unable to convince Georgia to halt its plans, Alabama filed a lawsuit
in federal court to prevent the Corps from implementing the siphoning
plan. Florida later joined the suit. In 1992, the lawsuit was suspended
pending a comprehensive study of the future water needs of the three
states. The study addressed four broad issues: water resources demands,
water resources availability, flood and drought management, and interstate
coordination strategies. The early results of the study led the states
to construct two interstate water compacts that would allow the states
to analyze the study findings and divide the water resources accordingly.
The Compacts encompass two separate river systems. The ACT originates
in north Georgia and southern Tennessee where the Coosa and Tallapoosa
flow into northeast Alabama, meandering southward to join the Alabama
and the Tombigbee rivers, eventually emptying into Mobile Bay. The ACF
also originates in the hills of north Georgia, flows through metropolitan
Atlanta and winds south along the Alabama-Georgia border, joining the
Flint River and emptying into Floridas Apalachicola Bay. The core
of the Compacts created a Compact Commission, made up of the governors
from each state and one federal official, who share the responsibility
for negotiating an equitable apportionment of the surface water resources
in each basin. The Compacts also established a series of deadlines for
reaching the allocation agreements with the initial deadline set for
January 1, 1999. However, the time-lines in each compact have been extended
many times, with the most recent extension ending in June of 2001. A
settlement was expected on June 22, but fell through at the last minute.
Negotiators are scheduled to meet again on July 30, 2001.
Negotiations between the three states are ongoing with each state submitting
proposed allocation formulas for each of the two basin compacts. The
parties agree that this is a complex issue and point out that they are
covering new ground in establishing mechanisms for managing shared water
resources between the three states. The ACT and ACF compacts are only
the second and third such agreements existing between states east of
the Mississippi River and the basin areas involved are much larger than
the ones usually dealt with in the western United States.
At a recent meeting in Atlanta, negotiators from each state expressed
optimism that they are close to reaching allocation agreements and are
certain that the lessons learned from this process will benefit other
states in managing water resources. The basin-wide study and the ongoing
analysis and negotiations have resulted in more reliable methods for
predicting growth and development in the region and an understanding
of the importance of assessing water needs before scarcity issues arise.
The agreements underscore the importance of sound science and accurate
information in regional decision-making, and it is the intent that the
ACT and the ACF compacts will result in better long-term management
and conservation tools for sharing water resources in the southeast.
In what is considered by many as the worst case scenario,
the U.S. Supreme Court has jurisdiction to decide this matter if the
three states are unable to reach a complete agreement. All parties acknowledge
that resorting to a lawsuit is likely not in the best interest of any
of the states involved and recognize that reaching a complete and comprehensive
agreement is imperative.
For more information visit the web site of the Alabama Department of
Economic and Community Affairs, Office of Water Resources: