Fighting over water, the planet’s most abundant resource, may sound like some sort of Malthusian science fiction plot, but it has been Alabama’s reality for about a quarter century.
Going back to 1990, Alabama and Florida have been in a war with the state of Georgia over the rights to water flowing downstream in the Chattahoochee River. The Chattahoochee is part of the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola River Basin, and serves as a border for Alabama and Georgia until it flows into Lake Seminole in southwestern Georgia and northern Florida.
The conflict stems from the growth of Atlanta and its related water supply needs, which has put a strain on the river over the last three decades.
But it isn’t just Georgia acting on its own. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates dams on the river, determines how much water flows downstream.
The Chattahoochee is important to Alabama because it’s not only an important part of southwest Alabama’s drinking water supply, but it’s also used for agriculture, recreation, fisheries and industry. However, the effects of the Corps’ actions are most noticeable farther downstream as the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
After the Chattahoochee merges with the Flint River at Lake Seminole, the Apalachicola River is formed. That river flows through a very rural part of northern Florida. Apalachicola, where it empties into the Gulf, thrived for hundreds of years as a fishing town and was perhaps best known for the oysters harvested there.
Not so much anymore.
The Apalachicola oyster, which at one time you could find in restaurants all over the country, is now only available there locally.
Since the federal government is involved, it has created a party-line-defying legislative fight on Capitol Hill between the Alabama/Florida delegation and the Georgia delegation.
Earlier this year, Sen. Richard Shelby was able to get a clause inserted into an energy and water appropriations bill on this issue. If signed into law, it would prevent the Corps from changing water allocation in the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa rivers basin while the state governments involved hammer out an agreement on water allocation.
Shelby’s Georgia counterpart, Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, successfully removed that language from the House version of the legislation. Since the House version will likely be the version sent to President Barack Obama to be signed into law, it’s a loss for Shelby, about which he expressed his frustration.
“Because the short-term [continuing resolution] is simply a stop-gap continuation of Fiscal Year 2015 spending policy, Senator Shelby did not request, nor was he expecting, the ‘water wars’ language from the Fiscal Year 2016 Energy and Water Appropriations bill to be included,” a spokeswoman for Shelby told Lagniappe last week. “However, Sen. Shelby will continue to fight to ensure that the committee-approved language is incorporated in any final appropriations measure that is ultimately enacted.”
The latest chapter in this protracted saga is about to be written. The Corps last week released a new proposal on how the water flow of the Chattahoochee should be regulated. That proposal, which is now in the middle of its 90-day comment period, doesn’t really please either side. The Georgia side argues the flows won’t help the state meet its water demands. The Alabama side argues it still is favorable for Georgia and the Florida side complains the proposal does little to fill the Apalachicola Bay enough to revitalize the region’s flailing oyster industry.
“The Corps’ draft proposal is just another step by federal bureaucrats to tip the balance of the ‘water wars’ in Georgia’s favor,” Shelby’s office told Lagniappe. “Sen. Shelby will continue to fight to ensure the governors of Alabama, Georgia and Florida — not bureaucrats in Atlanta — are empowered to work out an agreement that is mutually agreeable to each of the affected states.”
The ultimate resolution to this dispute could set a precedent that could even impact Mobile. It isn’t likely, but what if somewhere upstream from Mobile, like Columbus, Mississippi. experienced unprecedented growth and had to start taking huge amounts of water from the Tombigbee River? Could you imagine the massive impact it would have on the city of Mobile, in any number of areas? Mobile exists because of the Mobile Bay. Many of the ecosystems within the Mobile Bay are very fragile and even the slightest fluctuation in the water flow could affect them.
My guess is that in 10 years, the parties involved will still be struggling to find common ground in this dispute. Eventually the Supreme Court will weigh in and determine whose water is whose. In the meantime, the state with the congressional delegation that is best able to pull off the best legislative maneuvering will win the early battles.
However, the argument that the states should determine the water flows and not the federal government could prove to be a specious one. The federal government has the power to regulate interstate commerce. In the meantime, it might be wise for senators Shelby, Sessions and Bill Nelson to come up with a plan B.