Children born when the water dispute between Georgia, Alabama and Florida broke out in 1990, are all grown up now. Many probably have families of their own. The dispute had Alabama wanting more water from Lake Lanier created by the Buford Dam on the Chattahoochee River to cool its nuclear plant. Further downstream, Florida wanted the “hooch’s” water to feed Apalachicola Bay’s seafood industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Georgia needed the water to provide for the ever-thirsty Atlanta metro area.
This 27 year-old battle has cost each state millions of dollars in legal fees over the decades — $30 million was the legal tab for Georgia last year. This case has seen more twists and turns than a Grand Prix road race. The original suit in 1990 had Alabama suing the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in federal court, but it wasn’t until 2009 that a U.S. District judge ruled in Alabama and Florida’s favor — but said that Atlanta could continue taking water from Lake Lanier at the same level for three years. After that, the ruling said, unless the states could come to some agreement, Atlanta would have to find its water from another source.
This 27 year-old battle has cost each state millions of dollars in legal fees over the decades — $30 million was the legal tab for Georgia last year. This case has seen more twists and turns than a Grand Prix road race.
Of course, Georgia appealed the decision while at the same time going into full-scale panic mode. Outdoor watering was banned and other water conservation methods were implemented, particularly with new construction. Money was set aside for reservoir construction. Then the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Georgia, causing Alabama and Florida to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court refused to hear the case.
However, this war wasn’t over. Next battles would be staged in the halls of Congress. This course of action was favored by Alabama and Florida, not by Georgia. Depending on the perspective, using Congress as a cudgel had several disadvantages that spread far beyond the borders of the three states involved in this dispute.
In the latest chapter, the Supreme Court appointed a special master , Ralph Lancaster, who admonished all sides to try to come to some agreement before he had to hear arguments and rule on the case. And he told the governors to keep their mouths shut. Though this latest chapter pitted Florida against Georgia with Alabama watching from the sidelines, Gov. Deal practiced shuttle diplomacy with both colleagues trying to strike some sort of compromise. Florida maintained its stance that Georgia was using too much of the Chattahoochee River’s water and it wanted to cap Georgia’s water use.
Georgia stressed its conservation efforts and statistics released by Gov. Deal’s office showed that by retrofitting more than 110,000 toilets the state was saving more than 900 million gallons a year. There were also leak detection programs, pricing structures put in place that helped cut water usage by about 30 percent in the last 10 years.
Tuesday, after all the arguments had been made, the special master, came down in favor of Georgia.
Still, this war isn’t over. The high court could, although doubtful, not accept the special master’s recommendation, or it could decide something else. Other legal challenges are not out of the question. At this point, after spending millions of dollars in tax money, all the states involved are all in, to the bitter end. While this round is over, there were no champagne corks being popped under the Gold Dome in celebration. Rather, just a sense of cautious optimism.