The Alabama, Coosa, and Tallapoosa River system begins in north Georgia and in southern Tennessee, at the point where the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers flow into northeast Alabama. The rivers then meander south to join and form the Alabama River just above Montgomery, which flows 315 miles before joining the Tombigbee River above Mobile Bay. As is the case with the ACF waterway, the rivers flow through a series of locks and dams for much of their journey. About three-fourths of the basin is located in Alabama, with the rest located largely in Georgia. This basin is also biologically diverse. Heavily forested land makes up almost 80 percent of the watershed and most of the remainder is used for agriculture. The basin encompasses 42 counties with a dispersed population, almost 75 percent of which lives in Alabama. Georgia, however, withdraws more than 80 percent of the water taken from the system.
History of the Dispute
The Army Corps of Engineers built Buford Dam and created Lake Lanier in the mid-1950s for flood control, hydropower, and navigation. Over the years, the fast-growing Atlanta region increasingly began to rely on the reservoir for its main water supply. In 1989, the Corps recommended a reallocation of water being used for hydropower for Atlanta's water needs. However, Alabama officials challenged the plan in court, claiming that the proposal would favor Georgia's interests over Alabama's and that the environmental impacts on downstream states were not sufficiently considered. A year later Florida and Georgia joined the lawsuit on behalf of their respective interests. In an effort to avoid long and costly litigation, state officials and the Corps agreed to suspend the litigation pending a comprehensive study of the various issues. The objective was to determine a fair way of distributing water to the three states. Out of these studies, frameworks for negotiation, known as compacts, for each basin were created in 1997 to allow states to work together for solutions. The states were unable to reach an agreement, however, and the compacts expired: in 2003 for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and in 2004 for the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa. Other litigation followed and, subsequently, the state of Georgia and the Corps reached an agreement giving the state rights to more water from Lake Lanier. In February 2008, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the proposed change was sufficiently significant as to require congressional approval. Negotiations among the parties remain in process at the time of this entry.
Stakeholders in the Dispute
Large-scale and complex water-allocation projects, particularly those that involve two entire river systems in three states, affect different groups of water users in different ways. Downstream water users in Alabama maintain that Georgia's withdrawals will compromise the state's future population and economic growth. The growth issue is important for all downstream interests in the two basins but particularly so for the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa basin. The Alabama River flows through parts of the state that have high poverty and unemployment rates. Agricultural interests want adequate water for irrigation and other agricultural uses. Towns and cities want sufficient quantities of quality water for domestic, commercial, and public needs. Food, textile, paper, chemical, and metal industries have water needs, as do power producers who depend on water availability. Navigation interests require sufficient water levels to float barges, even during times of drought. This issue is especially important along the Alabama border where state economic development officials regard navigation on the Apalachicola and Chattahoochee Rivers as critical to attracting new industry to this corridor. Anglers, boaters, and lakeside property owners are all concerned about reservoir levels, flow rates, and water quality. Anglers want stable water levels to protect spawning, whereas boaters want water levels high enough to navigate safely, and lakeside property owners do not want to see low water mud banks and need water levels that will allow them to dock their boats. Stakeholders in Alabama are also concerned about water quality issues. Because the state's interests are downstream of Atlanta, pollution degrades the water and decreased flows from Atlanta's proposed withdrawals will compound the problem. Shallow water and reduced flow concentrates pollutants, which can damage plants, fish, and wildlife, as well as making the water less usable for such activities as fishing and boating.
Proposals to resolve the dispute are varied and complicated. However, authorities generally agree that not taking action will result in insufficient water for a variety of users, especially in times of drought. Critics of Georgia's proposal to increase Atlanta's water supplies contend that downstream users and, ultimately, economic growth would be hurt by an unreliable water supply, with benefits largely going outside of both basins, particularly to Atlanta. On the other hand, Alabama proposals for increases in water flow would meet the state's water needs but would damage ecosystems that require both wet and dry exposure and, of course, result in Atlanta not having sufficient water. Officials representing environmental interests argue that alternatives aimed at maintaining natural processes achieve solutions for everyone concerned. This "sustainability alternative" focuses on ecosystem health and establishing flows that mimic natural cycles, such as floods in the spring and droughts in the summer. Critics, however, note that the benefits of such an approach would occur over the longer term, whereas political feasibility demands shorter-term solutions.
Hull, Jonathan Watts. "The War Over Water." In Regional Resource (Atlanta: Council of State Governments, October 2000).