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Florida v. Georgia: Who Will Win the Water War?

Each November for over a century Florida v. Georgia has meant just one thing: bragging rights for college football fans for the season. This November, Florida v. Georgia has taken on a very different meaning and the stakes couldn’t be higher for residents of those two states as well as Alabama. Just as the football game is played in a neutral stadium in Jacksonville, this new rivalry between the states is being played out 1,000 miles away in a federal courthouse in Portland, Maine.

Chattahoochee River in Georgia

The Chattahoochee River flows through Norcross, Georgia, downstream from Lake Lanier and the Buford Dam. Photo by Mike Gonzalez (TheCoffee), 2007.

For nearly three decades the states of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia have been locked in a water war over the Chattahoochee, Flint, and Apalachicola rivers.  The Chattahoochee River streams out of the Blue Ridge Mountains, separates Atlanta from its northern suburbs and forms much of the border between Alabama and Georgia. The river flows south and combines with the Flint River at the Florida border to form the Apalachicola River before flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. Water experts from across the country have followed this as the “ACF” case where governors of the three states tried unsuccessfully to agree to a much-needed water compact.

Clay Henderson

Clay Henderson is executive director of Stetson University’s Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience.

What is at stake is the future of water in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. This is not an academic question to the more than five million residents of Atlanta, peanut farmers in Georgia, cotton farmers in Alabama, and oystermen in Florida. A recent headline in the Atlanta Journal- Constitution summed it up: “Metro Atlanta and Southwest Georgia’s fate hang in water war balance.”

Florida’s primary claim is that Georgia uses more than its fair share of water from the Chattahoochee to supply water to the metropolitan Atlanta area and for agriculture. As a result, there is not sufficient fresh water flows from the Apalachicola into the Gulf estuaries to support Apalachicola Bay’s famous oysters. Healthy estuaries require a mix of fresh and salt waters to support the seafood we rely upon. In the absence of sufficient fresh water flows, Apalachicola Bay Oyster harvests collapsed in 2013.

Georgia’s primary claim to water relates to the Lake Lanier Reservoir, which was created in 1951 with the construction of the Buford Dam. The dam is located on the Chattahoochee River northeast of Atlanta. The purpose of the dam and reservoir was to provide potable water and hydroelectric power generation for metro Atlanta. Approximately 360 million gallons per day of water from Lake Lanier is used by metro Atlanta.

The Flint River is also very important to Georgia. This river is entirely within the state and meanders over 300 miles to the southeast corner of the state. The river flows through agricultural lands which famously grow peanuts, cotton, corn, pecans and peaches. More than 6,000 farms have agricultural water permits to withdraw water from the Flint River Basin before it reaches the Florida border.

The dispute between the states eventually made its way to the United States Supreme Court and in 2014 the justices authorized Florida to file suit directly against Georgia to be heard by the high court. Once filed, Alabama joined with Florida, and the Supreme Court appointed a special master to take testimony in the case. Over the last month, Special Master Ralph Lancaster has reviewed depositions, oral arguments, and heard live testimony in a federal bankruptcy court in Maine far removed from the Deep South. Once final briefs are filed, he will make recommendations to the Supreme Court which will have the final say.

Florida’s case seeks “equitable apportionment” of the waters from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers. In effect, Florida would like for Georgia to use less water through conservation. Testimony in the trial ended last week with the special master imploring the states to settle their differences. According to the Associated Press, Special Master Lancaster said, “Please settle this blasted thing. I can guarantee you that at least one of you is going to be unhappy with my recommendation — and perhaps both of you.”

Stetson’s Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience will continue to monitor the status of the case and report on how it will affect water conservation and natural resource protection across the southeast.

– Clay Henderson is an attorney and executive director of Stetson University’s Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience in DeLand.

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