Momentary win in long conflict

Published 4:14 pm Friday, January 16, 2009

Regardless of how Georgia’s political powers choose to cast a Monday decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, make no mistake about it: It was unequivocally a victory, even if perhaps just a temporary one, for Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley in a water war now heading into its third decade.

This is, among other things, a political war—but not in the usual sense. The battle lines in this long-running fight aren’t drawn between Democrats and Republicans, or conservatives and liberals. It’s not “class warfare.” It’s not about race. It’s not about religion.

In fact, if there’s an upside to a problem this serious, made more so by two years of drought, it’s that it gives us occasion to throw out most of the political clichés that have all but lobotomized our civic discourse.

Email newsletter signup

The court’s decision was in effect what football analysts might refer to as a “no-call”: The justices declined to review a February 2008 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals that invalidated a 2003 agreement allowing metro Atlanta to withdraw substantially more water—up to 22 percent of its capacity—from Lake Lanier, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment on the Chattahoochee north of Atlanta.

Alabama and Florida contested that agreement, arguing that Lanier, as a federal reservoir, was built for the purpose of generating hydropower, and that supplying water for the open-ended growth of Atlanta was not an authorized use or purpose.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley’s response to the latest development is revealing: “Today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court confirms that federal law does not permit Atlanta to take more and more water from Lake Lanier to the detriment of downstream interests.”

The wording of that statement is hardly accidental; Riley, unlike so many others in both government and media, gets it. It’s not “Georgia” trying to take more and more water, but Atlanta; not just Florida and Alabama whose needs are being ignored, but “downstream interests.” Indeed, a chronic frustration here in this community is how officials who are supposed to represent the whole state have, insofar as this water war is concerned, chosen to define “Georgia.” (Hint: If you’re downriver from, say, Union City, you’re not in it.)

Not that it should need saying, but … there are important and legitimate water stakeholders between Interstate 285 and the Gulf of Mexico, of which Columbus is a major one. Others are farms, water-using industries, municipal water systems, fishing both recreational and commercial, Apalachicola Bay oysters and, yes, habitats for protected species—a detail cynical politicians have grasped, and grossly distorted, in an attempt to reduce downstream concerns to narrow tree-hugger obsessions instead of fundamental and rightful needs.

This war is far from over. But you take your victories when and where you can get them.

Dusty Nix, for the editorial boardThe Columbus Ledger-Enquirer