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May 13, 2013

Tri-state water feud plays out in Congress

ATLANTA —  The water dispute between Alabama, Florida and Georgia is provoking hardball politics in Congress, where Georgia lawmakers derailed a proposal that could restrict metro Atlanta’s water supply.

A provision initially tucked into a water projects bill would make it harder for metro Atlanta and North Georgia communities to take drinking water from two federal reservoirs. That restriction in early drafts of the 2013 Water Resources Development Act would effectively undermine a court decision affirming Atlanta can use one of those reservoirs, Lake Lanier, for its water needs, a legal victory for Georgia and a setback for Alabama and Florida.

The proposed rule seems an attempt by Alabama and Florida to pressure Georgia into more serious negotiations. The appellate court ruling prevented an immediate water crisis for Atlanta, and reduced the urgency for Georgia’s leaders and increased their bargaining power. Georgia Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, both Republicans, said they reached an agreement last week to remove the restriction, though senators from Alabama and Florida want it restored.

A floor vote in the Senate could come as early as this week. The restrictions would have applied to all U.S. reservoirs but carried significant implications in the Southeast

“We have always believed that this dispute must be solved at the state level, not in Washington,” Chambliss and Isakson said in a statement. The new version urges state leaders to negotiate.

Originally, the plan would have forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to seek congressional approval if a request for municipal or industrial water cumulatively changed by 5 percent or more the approved water storage plans for a federal reservoir. Georgia is now seeking water from Lake Lanier that, when combined with earlier requests, easily exceeds the 5 percent threshold. Georgia officials said water withdrawals from Lake Allatoona, part of a separate conflict between Alabama and Georgia, could have also been threatened.

It is not clear whether Congress would be willing to approve more water for Georgia given the long-running disputes.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., sought the original limits in the bill, said Brooke Sammon, a spokeswoman for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Shortly after Georgia’s delegation reached a deal to strike the rule, Rubio introduced an amendment on behalf of the Alabama and Florida Senate delegations to restore it. A spokesman for Sessions did not return a request for comment.

“Addressing and resolving this issue will end the economic havoc that decreased water flows have created for the Apalachicola Bay’s once vibrant oyster industry, as well as all the other industries so dependent on the harvesting and sale of that great resource, and he will continue to make this a top priority until the issue is resolved,” Sammon said.

Alabama’s lawmakers have used their congressional clout to send signals before. In 2005, Sessions and Sen. Richard Shelby blocked the nomination of an Army official until they received a promise that the U.S. government would not change plans for operating river dams until the states resolved their dispute.

Alabama, Florida and Georgia have clashed for years over the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint river system, which serve all three states. Alabama and Georgia have also fought over a separate basin formed by the Alabama, Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers.

Georgia wants more water from Lake Lanier to serve the Atlanta region, arguing that Congress always intended the reservoir would supply at least part of the area’s water needs. Alabama and Florida say metro Atlanta uses too much water upstream, resulting in low water flows downstream. They say the lack of water allows pollutants to concentrate in rivers, reduces the water supply for their businesses and residents, and harms wildlife.

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