Now it’s up to U.S. Supreme Court to find a fair tristate water solution

By Guest Columnist SALLY BETHEA, founding executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper who is retiring at the end of the year

The second of Bethea’s two-part series about water issues in the Atlanta region. Last week: fixing Atlanta’s sewer system.

Twenty-five years of gridlock among Georgia, Alabama, and Florida over the allocation of water among competing interests in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin can be summarized in three words: litigation, negotiation, study.

Repeated over years of endless cycle, these expensive activities have failed to achieve the most important word: resolution.

As one astute observer has noted – there’s nothing to show for more than two decades beyond “a tall stack of paid legal bills.”

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea

Those bills will continue to mount as litigation moves into its final stage before the U.S. Supreme Court.

This November, the court agreed to hear a Florida lawsuit to cap Georgia’s withdrawals from the Chattahoochee River to increase freshwater flows into the Apalachicola River and Bay. Prior to the filing of that case, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce declared the collapse of the oyster-fishery a federal disaster.

Hundreds of miles upstream, continued access to Lake Lanier – which stores more water than the other three federal reservoirs in the basin – remains metro Atlanta’s most sustainable option for meeting its long-term water supply needs. Reaching an equitable agreement with Alabama and Florida is essential.

Equally important are people between Atlanta and Apalachicola – in LaGrange, West Point, Columbus, Eufaula and other communities; they also need enough water during the basin’s regular droughts.

And, there is the river system itself, which must be protected as it is used, so that future generations can enjoy the many advantages that it has provided to all of us, as the lifeblood of our region.

I have actively participated in this story since it unfolded in the late 1980s. My adult sons were just four and eight years old when I went to my first tristate “water war” meeting. So, I add a mother’s view to that of an environmentalist.

Sharing a limited resource – whether it’s a plate of cookies or a magnificent river system that flows from north Georgia to the sea – is a lesson that must be learned. Being fair, not bullying is a lesson we all learn from childhood.

Why haven’t these basic values guided the allocation of water among these interests when there isn’t enough for everyone to have all they want?

What will stop the endless cycle that bleeds taxpayers of tens of millions of dollars to support fleets of lawyers?

There was one bright moment in the past 25 years, when a federal district judge demanded that the three states come to a water sharing agreement within three years.

A map depicting the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin

A map depicting the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin

The “live-and-let-live” approach that had been Georgia’s (read: Atlanta’s) position for nearly 20 years, as the metro region grew and increased its water consumption, had hit a brick wall.

It was time to deal and come up with a water management agreement for the river basin that provided everyone their needs – but not their greeds – during drought.

This “forcing factor” struck fear in many hearts, particularly in metro Atlanta, and an idea was born: get the stakeholders together from all three states and reach a sustainable plan based on facts, science and transparency.

What a concept! Something that a parent might conceive: a level playing field, no bullies, no winner-take-all. Count the cookies honestly and openly and decide how to fairly allocate them.

In 2011, two years into the ACF Stakeholder (ACFS) process, a higher court overturned the federal district judge and the deadline for a water sharing agreement vanished. No more forcing factor. Back to “live-and-let-live” with no resolution, waiting for the next drought.

Enthusiasm for consensus from some stakeholders, largely those representing the metro region, diminished.

Meanwhile, the technical team hired by the ACFS kept developing their analysis of the river basin, trying to find a better way for the Corps of Engineers to manage their four dams to equitably accommodate most needs.

The technical data was becoming increasingly useful, and those of us who had slogged through the stakeholder wilderness for four years were hopeful that a resolution might be reached.

Then, Florida filed its lawsuit. Lawyers representing metro Atlanta interests suddenly appeared at ACFS meetings. Confidentiality agreements were imposed on stakeholders; meetings were no longer open, and restrictions on technical information threatened the possibility of reaching any resolution.

Enter the U.S. Supreme Court. It may appoint a special master to investigate the facts and deliver recommendations. The case could take as long as a decade.

I don’t know anyone who hoped for this outcome – except perhaps some of the lawyers.

It is plain to this mom that no matter how well-intentioned, the multiple interests in this matter are simply not going to come to agreement without some sort of forcing factor.

Let’s just hope that the U.S. Supreme Court sticks to the facts, science and transparency – and above all – fairness.

The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization with 7,000 members. When Bethea retires at the end of the years as the executive director and Riverkeeper, a new leadership team will take over — Juliet Cohen will become the executive director, and Jason Ulseth will become the Riverkeeper. 

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