Water wars persist, even with record rain

Published 10:45 pm Monday, October 12, 2009

Now that the years-long drought is officially over with one of the wettest Septembers on record, it is hard to believe that Alabama is still engaged in what the press is calling a “water war” with Georgia. Yet, even though the lakes and reservoirs were filled this summer and fall, watersheds shared by the states of Alabama, Georgia and Florida are still a limited and precious resource that must be cared for.

There must be an accord between the states about our commonly shared water resources. Right now, it still looks like Georgia and its governor want to fight rather than come to common ground, and it is a battle they are losing. However, instead of trying to put the matter to rest, our neighbor to the East may actually be thinking of expanding the conflict, and cause more problems between the states.

The decades old water dispute has centered on the main source of water for metro Atlanta, Lake Lanier. Lanier was built fifty years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River, the waterway that forms much of the border between Alabama and Georgia. The dam and lake were authorized for flood control, hydropower and navigation, not as a reservoir for drinking water.

Yet as Atlanta grew and did not take into account its long term water needs, it simply took more and more of the water from Lanier. When the Corps decided to use the lake less for electricity and more for Atlanta, Alabama spoke up and sued, saying there was no consideration of what was going to happen downstream.

As the process wound through the courts and negotiations between the states faltered, a deal was struck between the Corps and Georgia in early 2004 for more water to go to Atlanta. Alabama and Florida challenged the settlement as a secret reallocation of commonly held water resources. Last July, a judge agreed with Alabama, and now Georgia is behind the eight ball on the ruling, and it would seem the negotiations.

Did that bring Georgia back to the table in a better frame of mind? The answer seems to be no. What there seems to be is a bunch of posturing and saber rattling. It isn’t about partisanship, because Gov. Riley, Georgia’s Gov. Perdue, and Florida’s Gov. Crist are all Republicans.

Now, the peach state is looking at other watersheds to see if they could also meet north Georgia’s water needs.

One of the watersheds they are looking at is what is known as the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River basin. The Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers are absolutely critical for Alabama, comprising many hydroelectric dams, recreational lakes, and drinking water for some of the state’s largest cities. Georgia is even looking into tapping into the Tennessee River watershed, though no part of the river actually is in Georgia.

Alabama relies on its rivers more than almost any other state. We have the most navigable waterways in the country. Our lakes comprise a backbone of our tourism industry. We rely on dams for a significant portion of our power. Moreover, our rivers are a central part of the history of our state. The Great Seal of Alabama is a map of state’s principal river systems. Rivers are who we are, and are critical to our future.

The water war has done one good thing for the state: for the first time, Alabama is developing a comprehensive water plan to preserve our resources. Last year, the Legislature created the Permanent Joint Legislative Committee on Water Policy and Management. The committee consists of House and Senate members, and it has been meeting and working on a comprehensive statewide water plan that will provide a basis to defend and preserve water resources from the pressures of development both inside and outside Alabama.

Yet, most of our state’s water resources could be in jeopardy by the actions of Georgia. That state has itself begun to enact a statewide plan, and it is about time. We must remain vigilant and fight for our rights as downstream citizens. Hopefully, their state leaders will see the light, and their legal losses, and come to the negotiating table with a better attitude.

Jimmy Martin serves as Chilton County’s representative in the Alabama Legislature.