Southeast drought fuels battle over water rights

WASHINGTON — Alabama, Florida and Georgia lawmakers are upping the ante in a feud over water rights, a fight fueled by Atlanta's explosive growth and worries that drought-stricken regions of the Southeast are months away from running out of water.

Each state is pressing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on decades-old water control plans that give guidance on how best to release millions of gallons of water from river basins that the states share. Such plans are especially important when states face floods or droughts.

All three states accuse the Corps playing favorites in choosing when to release millions of gallons of water for drinking, hydropower, recreational and agricultural uses.

The tri-state battle pits Florida's concerns about preserving endangered species of mussels and sturgeon and the effects of booming population growth in Atlanta against those of Georgia, which worries that the water needed to keep the species alive draws from dwindling sources such as Lake Lanier outside of Atlanta. Alabama, meanwhile, contends Georgia needs to loosen its hold on water from Lake Allatoona in the Atlanta metro area so that the state can replenish much-needed water supplies and continue running a nuclear power plant in the southern part of the state.

"The water control plan governing these two critical river basins is decades old and is no longer serving the needs of the state of Georgia," said Sen. Johnny Isakson R-Ga. "Thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of residents have moved to this part of Georgia since then. It is imperative that we update the water control plan to reflect 21st century demand and usage."

Earlier this week, Georgia's governor, Sonny Purdue, threatened to sue the Army Corps over how it handles decisions to release water from Atlanta's reservoir.

Florida's Department of Environmental Protection recently fired off a terse letter to the Corps, saying failure to release the water would result in "a profound disruption of the socioeconomic foundation in Florida's panhandle region."

All three states have river basin lawsuits pending in federal courts, Corps officials said.

And though all three states have enacted varying degrees of water restrictions, the states accuse one another of not doing enough to help conserve water.

"While we are all suffering from this drought, relief for metro Atlanta cannot come at the expense of the people of Alabama," said Alabama Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, who represents a district near the Alabama-Georgia state line. "... The Corps should address whether it is allowing Atlanta municipalities to take far more than their fair share of water from Lake Allatoona."

The Corps said it's trying to steer clear of picking sides in the regional squabble.

"We don't own the water — the water is owned by the states," said Rob Holland, a spokesman for the Corps' regional office in Atlanta. "We encourage the states to resolve their problems, but we can't solve them for them."

Experts on climate say this is the first time in a century that the Southeast has faced such a critical drought. Other parts of the nation, such as California and Idaho, have long dealt with droughts and have plans to deal with the wildfires and diminished crops that result from them.

"The drought in the Southeast is far more widespread," said Mike Hayes, the director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. "People wonder, 'Can I ask my neighbor for water if they are in the same boat?' Other natural disasters, like hurricanes and floods, bring people together. Drought, if people aren't careful, can really set one sector against another sector and can create chronic tension."

But in the historically water-rich South, the battle over dwindling water sources already has turned nasty.

Georgia's congressional delegation is pushing legislation that would give all states the power to suspend the Endangered Species Act during extreme droughts, a move that would cut short Florida's claims to extra water.

"While they're worrying about an endangered species of mussels in Apalachicola, we're worried about the endangered people," Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said Thursday.

Alabama's congressional delegation also took the Corps to task for giving Georgia a larger share of water from Lake Allatoona, saying, "Decisions to drastically cut the water flowing into Alabama from Lake Allatoona are being made without all stakeholders being able to evaluate very important information."

Environmental groups say that Atlanta, not the Army Corps of Engineers, is at fault for the region's water woes.

"The Corps has been a convenient punching bag to point to in all of this," said Gil Rogers, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit regional group that focuses on environmental protection issues throughout the Southeast. "The Corps has made some mistakes in the past, but I don't think it's fair to point to the problem as the fault of the engineers, or the mussels in Florida or Alabama. We've allowed growth without asking questions about whether they can sustain that growth."