A Three-State Competition for Water and Growth

Growing Blue

Florida, Georgia, and Alabama battle for fresh water

The Escalating Water Conflict between Alabama, Florida and Georgia

At first glance, it is easy to think that Florida, Georgia and Alabama have abundant water resources. All three receive significant precipitation each year, unlike the drier states out West, and they also have access to inland lakes and rivers in addition to the miles of coastline in Florida and Georgia.

Unfortunately, the reality is much different. These three Southern states are in the midst of a courtroom battle over rights to the area’s water supplies. The problem is not strictly a lack of water. Instead, the issue is how to get water to the right places so that it can meet increasing needs. The population of Atlanta, for example, has been exponentially increasing for decades, making it one of the most quickly expanding metropolitan areas in the US, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. That growth is expected to continue over the next three decades, with the Atlanta area in Northeast Georgia more than doubling in population by 2040, while the City is located in one of the driest areas of the region.

Recognizing the need to support Atlanta’s water needs long ago, Congress authorized the development of a dam in the 1940s that created Lake Lanier (on the Chattahoochee River), a reservoir located northeast of Atlanta, to help provide a water supply for the city.

Therein lies part of the issue: When river systems cross over multiple states, they can become caught in a territorial crossfire. For Alabama, water supplies drawn from the Chattahoochee River are critical for its own needs. For Florida, maintaining water flow where the river runs along its own border is important for preserving its oyster industry. Also at stake are several lakes within the area’s two main river basins (Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa).

Conflict over water supplies from both river basins, along with Atlanta’s increasing withdrawal of water from Lake Lanier, have been in the court system for 18 years. The discussion grew heated in 2009, when a federal judge ruled that Atlanta’s future withdrawals from Lake Lanier should require congressional approval. Importantly, the ruling also included an ultimatum: by 2012, unless the states can negotiate a workable solution or Congress intervenes, Atlanta will need to turn back the clock, withdrawing only as much water from Lake Lanier as it did back in the 1970s, before its big population boom increased its water demands.

Clearly, the three states will need to reach agreement on how to adequately share the region’s precious water supplies – preferably before the 2012 deadline, especially if Atlanta’s population continues to grow. How they ultimately resolve their conflicts may provide useful strategies that could be employed in other regions where states are required to share water resources across state lines.

Read more:
Drought in the Southeastern United States: Causes, Variability over the Last Millennium, and the Potential for Future Hydroclimate Change [PDF]
Drought spreading in Southeast