Aug 10 2010

Alabama, Florida senators team up in water wars

Birmingham News

The four U.S. senators from Al­abama and Florida ganged up Monday and opposed a move by their coun­terparts in Georgia to make permanent plans for Lake Lanier to supply drinking water to the At­lanta area, the latest con­gressional dustup in the 30-year-old fight over the water shared by all three states.

U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Bill Nelson and George LeMieux of Florida warned U.S. Army officials, in writing, to ig­nore Georgia’s request to include Atlanta’s use of Lake Lanier when it up­dates the region’s water control plans. Doing so, the Alabama and Florida senators argued, would violate a court order and derail the ongoing settlement talks among the three state governors.

“Any effort by the (Army Corps of Engineers) at this point to inject itself into the controversy with a proposed resolution will be counterproductive,” according to the Monday letter from the Alabama and Florida senators. “A solution will require concessions by each state, and it is not the job of the Corps to decide what those concessions will be.” A 2009 order from a federal judge said Atlanta’s withdrawals from Lake Lanier were not authorized by law, and gave the states three years to come up with a solution that would meet the water supply needs for the states that share the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee- Flint river basin. After that order, top officials with the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the water system, pledged that they would not take sides or endorse the withdrawals for the Atlanta area.

But in a second related court ruling last month, the same judge commented that if the Corps “does not at least consider the effects of current and future water supply withdrawals from Lake Lanier,” its work would be “useless.”

U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia focused on that statement in asking the Corps on July 27 to accommodate Atlanta’s withdrawals.

The Alabama and Florida senators, who argue their downstream communities are suffering because Atlanta siphons too much away from the top of the river basin, have long complained that the Corps’ leadership over the years has favored Georgia in the debate.

“The unspoken premise of the letter from the Georgia senators is that the Corps can somehow develop a solution to the tristate water controversy,” wrote Shelby, Sessions, Nelson and LeMieux. “We strongly disagree with that notion.”

The senators directed their letters to Jo Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works; and Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp, chief of engineers for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Lake Lanier, about 50 miles northeast of Atlanta, feeds into the Chattahoochee River along the border of Alabama and Georgia and into the Apalachicola Bay of Florida. Its original purpose was flood control, hydropower and navigation support, and Congress never approved it as a source of Atlanta’s drinking water.