Interstate Water Disputes


In 1989, state officials in Alabama began negotiating with their counterparts in Georgia and Florida over the water rights in their shared river systems. Increased development and urban expansion in all three states continue to put pressure on available water resources. Officials have thus far been unable to reach a compromise, and the states remain entangled in a legal battle to determine how the water will be allocated.

Historically, the southeastern United States has enjoyed bountiful water supplies. During the 1970s and 1980s, however, the Atlanta region's increasing population, development, and economy spurred a significant growth in demand for water. In 1990, Atlanta officials The Alabama River begins north of Montgomery at Alabama Riversought a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to create new reservoirs on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river system and to increase withdrawals by 50 percent from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers by 2010. Those officials also proposed diverting water from the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) river system. Atlanta already obtained most of its water from these sources, but as the city grew, so did the demand for water. The so-called "tri-state water wars" began as downstream interests in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida began to view Atlanta's proposals to secure more water as a threat to their own supplies and future economic growth. Adding to their urgency was a series of droughts in the mid-1980s that caused hardships for downstream users. Alabama and Florida challenged the proposals, and negotiation and litigation among the three states continues.

The Basins 

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.

The Chattahoochee River rises in the mountains of Chattahoochee RiverThe Chattahoochee River begins in the mountains of north Georgia and feeds Lake Sidney Lanier some 30 miles north of Atlanta. Outflow from the lake's Buford Dam flows southwesterly through Atlanta and continues in that direction to form the Alabama-Georgia border, beginning in Chambers County. After a 400-mile journey through a series of reservoirs, the river reaches the Florida line, where it feeds the western section of Lake Seminole. The Flint River, a 349-mile river rising just south of Atlanta, feeds the eastern side of the lake. The outflow of Lake Seminole forms the Apalachicola River. Flowing through the Florida panhandle, this is the state's largest river by volume and spills into the Apalachicola Bay estuary. The ACF basin is one of the most biologically diverse in the country and serves the needs of 2.7 million people, 90 percent of whom live in Georgia. Thus, accelerating demand for water and alterations of the system to meet this demand are primary challenges for this 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 The Tallapoosa River flows southwest from the Appalachian Tallapoosa Riverjoined 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.

The Atlanta region's interest in the dispute is obviously obtaining sufficient water to match its growth. The Corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) largely represent The Coosa River begins in Rome, Georgia, where Coosa Riverfederal interests. The Corps' primary interests are navigation, hydropower generation, flood control, and recreational use, whereas the USFWS is largely focused on adherence to the environmental laws of the land, with particular attention to maintaining biodiversity in the basins' aquatic habitats. Florida's concerns are almost exclusively about the potential habitat threat to Apalachicola Bay. Even a relatively small change in water supply and flow rate could damage the bay, which is one of the most productive estuaries in the country. Its waters account for 70 percent of the state's oyster harvest and 10 percent of the nation's.

Solutions 

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.

Though interstate water allocation is still in dispute, there are some positive outcomes. Citizens now realize that solutions to water problems go beyond their specific desires and needs to involve entire watersheds, due to effective public participation strategies. They also realize that water supplies are limited, even in the Southeast. Thus, new perspectives are evolving regarding population and economic growth and how or if such growth is sustainable. Alabama established the Office of Water Resources to oversee its interests in 1993. Other groups have formed to meet the challenges of water problems that cross state boundaries, so officials remain hopeful that solutions are in sight.

In June 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled overturned a lower court ruling that would have imposed serious restrictions on water consumption in Atlanta, Georgia. This ruling could have significant consequences for communities in Alabama and Florida lying downstream from Atlanta.

Additional Resources 

Hull, Jonathan Watts. "The War Over Water." In Regional Resource (Atlanta: Council of State Governments, October 2000).

Jordan, Jeffrey L., and Aaron T. Wolf, eds. Interstate Water Allocation in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia: New Issues, New Methods, New Models. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

Shaw, Tammy L. Sharing Water in Alabama, Georgia and Florida: An Update on the Tri-State Water Wars. Mississippi-Alabama Sea-Grant Legal Program, University of Mississippi. (n.d.).

Hobson Bryan
University of Alabama


Published March 27, 2008
Last updated June 26, 2013