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Water war: Georgia asked to consider importing water to Chattahoochee basin, which now exports millions of gallons a year

Flint River rock islands

South of Lake Blackshear, the Flint River features rock islands that become prominent during times of low water flow. Credit: garivernetwork.wordpress.com

By David Pendered

The latest directive from the special master overseeing the water-war litigation between Georgia and Florida reminds of the theory about the tragedy of the commons: The directive reminds of the amount of water Georgia already juggles to meet various demands.

Flint River rock islands

South of Lake Blackshear, the Flint River features rock islands that become prominent during times of low water flow. Credit: garivernetwork.wordpress.com

Special Master Ralph Lancaster has suggested Georgia consider importing water to the Chattahoochee River basin. Evidently, Lancaster thinks this solution would satisfy Florida’s demand for more water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin. Voila – the decades-long water war would cease.

Two quick asides:

  • Alabama is of a different mind. The state sent a letter to Lancaster advising that it may seek to become a party to the federal lawsuit Florida filed against Georgia. Alabama would act if Georgia thinks of tapping into a river basin that flows into Alabama.
  • Another wildcard is whether the federal Justice Department will remain on the sidelines, as it announced on Dec. 15, 2016. Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions is expected to be confirmed as U.S. attorney general Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, followed by a Senate vote. The attorney general oversees the Justice Department.

Lancaster’s directive harkens to the tragedy of the commons because it revived discussion about Georgia’s current use of interbasin transfers.

Georgia river basins

Georgia already relies on transferring water between river basins to meet the water needs of more than half of Georgia’s residents, according to Georgia Water Coalition. Credit: coosa.org

The tragedy of the commons states that a shared resource can be depleted due to overuse by individuals looking to their own self-interest. As in a village’s common area where farmers let their livestock graze until all the grass has been consumed – at which point no shared resource remains.

In the case of the water litigation, Lancaster’s directive reminds that Georgia is already implementing interbasin transfers to meet the water needs of counties in which half the state’s residents. Most of the transfers are used to meet the demands of metro Atlanta.

Environmental groups, including the Georgia Water Coalition, generally oppose interbasin transfers because of the unintended consequences on the downstream environment. The lower flows can harm creatures who live in and along the waterways. Lower flows reduce the amount of water available to clean into drinking water and to dissolve wastewater, according to the coalition’s report.

The GWC’s 2010 report on interbasin transfers is the latest relevant document readily available. Written for the Georgia Legislature, GWC’s No. 1 recommendation is for lawmakers to realize:

  • “Interbasin transfers are harming Georgia’s rivers.”

The report provides information that points to the irony in Lancaster’s directive.

For example, the flow of water through the Flint River basin could be improved by almost 50 percent if existing transfers were returned, according to the report.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.)

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.)

The rate of flow through the Flint basin in dry periods has fallen by nearly 60 percent since the 1970s, the report stated. Up to half the drop can be attributed to interbasin transfers from the Flint to adjacent basins.

The Chattahoochee River donated in 2008 the greatest amount of water through interbasin transfers out of Georgia’s 14 major river basins, according to the report.

Here’s the amount and destination of the water donated in 2008, according to the report, which sourced the data to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division:

  • From the Chattahoochee basin to the Ocmulgee basin – 52.6 million gallons;
  • From the Chattahoochee basin to the Oconee basin – 5.4 million gallons;
  • From the Chatthoochee basin to the Coosa basin – 5.4 million gallons;
  • From the Chattahoochee basin to the Flint basin – 1.9 million.

This doesn’t mean the water necessarily ends up being consumed in the receiving basin. That’s because these basins donate water to other basins, according to the GWC report:

  • From the Ocmulgee basin to the Flint basin – 0.4 million gallons;
  • From the Ocmulgee basin to the Oconee basin – 1.4 million gallons;
  • From the Flint basin to the Ocmulgee basin – 9.3 million gallons;
  • From the Flint basin to the Chattahoochee basin – 4 million gallons.



David Pendered

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.


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