Georgia, Alabama bury hatchet in Chattahoochee River water case

Published 9:19 am Thursday, December 14, 2023

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The states of Georgia and Alabama have reached an agreement expected to end a long-running legal dispute over water allocation from the Chattahoochee River Basin.

Under the agreement, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will consider a first-of-its-kind proposal to operate its dams and reservoirs to achieve minimum water-flow objectives at Columbus, Ga., and Columbia, Ala., on the Chattahoochee along the states’ border.

In addition, the Corps agrees to maintain the necessary minimum elevation at Lake Seminole, a Corps-managed reservoir about 20 miles southwest of Bainbridge.

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If the Corps adopts the agreement following a public-comment period, Alabama will drop a lawsuit it brought in 2017 challenging the federal agency’s operations in the region, including the Corps’ policy allowing Georgia to make water-supply withdrawals near Atlanta.

While this specific lawsuit is only six years old. the so-called tri-state “water wars” between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida date back to 1990.

“This agreement is a win-win for our states, with neither side sacrificing what is important to them,” Gov. Brian Kemp said Tuesday. “The Chattahoochee River is the lifeblood of Southwest Georgia, and this proposal would give citizens and businesses certainty about the flow of water they need for business and leisure alike.

“Just as significant, adoption of this proposal would end the current issues related to water supply for metro Atlanta at Lake Lanier, which is crucial to the future of our state.”

“Alabama and Georgia have a lot in common,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey added. “But we have spent a lot of time – and a lot of money on attorney fees – fighting in court over water. This proposal is a big deal for Alabama as the Corps has never before set minimum water-flow objectives in the parts of the Chattahoochee that affect us.

“It would provide Alabama with long-term assurances that, in times of drought, our citizens will be protected, and our stakeholders will know how much water is coming their way.”

The agreement announced Tuesday is the most significant since September of last year, when representatives of water supply systems in Gwinnett, Forsyth and Hall counties finalized an agreement with the state of Georgia guaranteeing them water from Lake Lanier through 2050.

Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Georgia in a lawsuit brought by Florida over water allocation from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) Basin. Steps water planners in the Atlanta region have taken during the last two decades to reduce water consumption figured into that ruling.

“As leaders in water stewardship, we are gratified the parties have come together on an agreement that both protects metro Atlanta’s water supply and provides the downstream flows Alabama requested,” said Katherine Zitsch, senior water policy advisor at the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Tuesday’s agreement is not the end of water wars litigation. Alabama is continuing to pursue a legal challenge to the Corps’ 2021 decision to meet metro Atlanta’s water-supply needs from Allatoona Lake, part of the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) River Basin.