Army Corps of Engineers at center of water dispute in report to U.S. Supreme Court

By David Pendered

The buzz over the Georgia-Florida water dispute is more than mere white noise in a battle that dates to 1990. The final report now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court puts the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the center of the environmental dilemma.

Apalachicola Northern Railroad bridge

The defunct Apalachicola Northern Railroad crosses the Apalachicola River about two miles north of the town of Apalachicola. The railroad once was owned by a scion of the Du Pont family, one of the country’s wealthiest families. Credit: David Pendered

The special master appointed by the Supreme Court issued a final report Feb. 14 that says it’s impossible to extricate the corps from the environmental woes Florida claims to suffer as a result of diminished water flow from Georgia into the Apalachicola River:

  • “The evidence presented at trial suggests that the Corps’ reservoir operations are a significant, and perhaps the primary, factor influencing the amount of streamflow crossing the state line during times of drought and low flows….
  • “Unless the Corps’ rules are changed, therefore, increased inflow into the reservoir system will not necessarily pass downstream to Florida during these times.…
  • “Rather, it appears likely that ensuring relief for Florida during these times would require modification of the rules governing the Corps’ reservoir operations and, hence, active participation by the Corps in this proceeding.”

The special master, Ralph Lancaster, included this determination in his report that recommends the Supreme Court not rule in Florida’s favor. Florida wants more water to flow from Georgia into the Apalachicola River, which supports a major fishery.

Essentially, Lancaster determined that no matter how much water Georgia sends to Florida, the amount that reaches the Sunshine State – especially in dry periods – is at the total control of the corps and its management of five dams along the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin.

Ralph Lancaster

Ralph Lancaster

Lancaster’s position is in complete contrast to that of Florida’s legal team. Florida specified in its 2013 complaint to the Supreme Court that it did not want to involve the corps:

  • “Florida also seeks no affirmative relief against the United States in this action with respect to the Corps’ operation of the federally authorized dam and reservoir system, or any other interest.”

Lancaster’s determination provides a glimmer of hope for Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire.

“The way I see it is if the corps holds back more water, at Florida’s expense, their operations are in the cross-hairs for causing the harm the special master found was occurring on the Apalachicola,” Tonsmeire said.

Tonsmeire emphasized the importance of Lancaster’s characterization of the corps’ role in the water-flow issue.

“The corps is now front and center for being complicit in the harm that is going on in Florida,” Tonsmeire said. . “I think there has to be, I hope that there will be, some recognition by the corps now that their operations are harming the [Apalachicola] bay and they will make changes to their water control manual proposal that will alleviate that harm.”

Apalachicola River

The Apalachicola River is effectively three rivers, each with its own personality, that traverses through a sparsely population region west of Tallahassee, Fl. Credit: David Pendered

However, the Justice Department, writing on behalf of the corps, said in a brief filed in the case that the corps is proceeding with approval of a new water management plan for the river basin. In the update, the first in some 50 years, the corps envisions significant changes in the management of water flow through Georgia. The plan is to be implemented in March and:

  • “[P]roposes to provide additional water supply storage to Georgia in the Atlanta area, enhance the navigational capabilities of the system, and change the current hydropower generation schedule at Buford Dam during drought operations.”

Of note, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has not indicated if he intends to have the Justice Department seek to intervene in the case.

As an Alabama senator, Sessions fought in 2013 for federal legislation to reduce the corps’ autonomy in managing water use. Sessions and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) collaborated on the effort that sought to undercut a court ruling that metro Atlanta can take water from Lake Lanier, which they said impacted Alabama and Florida.

Although Georgia’s senators were able to thwart Sessions and Rubio, Sessions indicated his objective in a published statement that sought to put a positive spin on the legislation passed by the Senate:

  • “It encourages a state-driven, as opposed to Army Corps-driven, solution to the ongoing water wars dispute in our region.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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