Atlanta skyline downtown 2013
The downtown Atlanta skyline Reuters

A Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee hearing on Monday had all the trappings of an insignificant event. One senator, Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, presided over the entire hearing alone. The interns sent from other lawmakers’ offices to write memos on the hearing appeared supremely bored. One even appeared to nod off. When nearly two hours of testimony had concluded, very little appeared to have taken place.

But if you are among the 35 million people living in Georgia, Alabama or Florida, that hearing was very important. If you aren't, you’ve probably never heard of the “tri-state water wars.” That decades-long dispute over precious water resources that will have far-reaching effects on the southeastern U.S. may have finally reached a turning point. And that may not be a good development for Alabama, despite the best efforts of Sen. Sessions to protect his state.

The city of Atlanta and its surrounding counties are one of the fastest-growing metropolitan centers in the U.S. By 2040, the region is expected to add nearly 3 million people and almost 1.8 million jobs, according to estimates by the Atlanta Regional Commission, a planning agency covering Atlanta and the 10 surrounding counties. But, as the Commission noted in a 2010 report on the future of the region, “[t]he economic success of the Atlanta region is related to the availability of water.” Inadequate water supply could cost the region billions of dollars. When a 2009 court ruling (since overturned) threatened Atlanta’s water supply, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce made the region’s water crisis its No. 1 priority.

But there’s a catch. The more water metro Atlanta uses, the less there is for the communities downstream who depend on the same river systems, including parts of Georgia, Alabama and Florida. After years of legal battles and failed negotiations over the states’ shared water supply, Georgia may be poised to finally get from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Defense Department agency that oversees federal public works projects, the water supply resources needed for the growing Atlanta region. Sen. Sessions, after failing to use federal legislation this spring to limit the Corps’ authority, used Monday’s hearing to argue that the Corps shouldn’t favor Atlanta in the Water Control Manuals it will craft for the region over the next two years. But Sessions’ efforts may be in vain.

Alabama isn't the only state that would suffer.

“It’s really about a way of life in Franklin County, Florida, and the people who have spent generations down there farming oysters and engaging in other forms of commercial fishing,” Greg Munson, deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said at the hearing. “Basically, they’re being asked to bear the brunt of the growth of Atlanta and other upstream interests in Georgia.”

Indeed, the continued depletion of downstream river flow has devastated the Apalachicola Bay estuaries located in Franklin County in the panhandle, where generations of residents produced 90 percent of the state’s oyster harvest. Now, their once thriving industry is on the brink of collapse.

The fate of the Apalachicola region is perhaps the most immediate and well-documented outcome of the Atlanta region’s increased water usage, but it will be far-reaching for the state of Alabama as well. “Water is the underlying cornerstone of just about any economic decision that is made with regard to business coming to the state or promoting tourism,” said Mitch Reid, program director at the Alabama Rivers Alliance, a conservation group that has been engaged in the water dispute since the 1990s. “Alabama’s a river state so every part of the state is sort of reliant on some form of the rivers or water, and that’s not even mentioning the importance that it is to clean and healthy drinking water.”

This year, Sen. Sessions tried to use the Water Resources Development Act of 2013 to limit Atlanta’s ability to take water from two federal reservoirs that Alabama also depends on, but the Senate ultimately approved the WRDA in May without his provision. Sessions did receive assurances that the Environmental and Public Works Committee would maintain an interest in the issue. So while the rest of his colleagues enjoyed a Monday off because the Senate wasn't in session, Sessions had a hearing all to himself on the issue.

The backstory on the “tri-state river wars” goes back to the 1950s, when the federal government built two reservoirs in Northern Georgia to provide flood control, hydropower and navigation for Georgia, Alabama and the Apalachicola region in Florida. Lake Lanier sits in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) basin that runs from northern Georgia along the Alabama border and into the Apalachicola Bay. Lake Allatoona is in the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) river system, which flows from Northern Georgia into Alabama and empties into Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees use of the reservoirs, began offering contracts to Atlanta water suppliers to meet the expanding city’s water needs. In 1989, the Army Corps of Engineers recommended that part of Lake Lanier be allocated for Atlanta’s water supply, but a year later Alabama sued the Corps to halt this new plan. Florida joined the suit. Between 1992 and 2003, litigation was put on hold so that the parties could assess their water needs and then negotiate water allocation. Ultimately, the courts sided with Georgia, finding that Lake Lanier could be used for water supply for the Atlanta region, and instructing the Army Corps to decide how it would allocate those resources, finally giving it the green light to finish the task it had started in the late 1980s.

It was this issue -- how the Army Corps intends to allocate water from Lakes Lanier and Allatoona -- that was the particular subject of Sessions’ hearing. “Regrettably, in my view, the Corps has too long been siding with Atlanta by accommodating massive water withdrawals to the detriment of my constituents in Alabama well as communities in Florida and other parts of Georgia,” Sessions said. Sessions’ line of questioning urged the Corps not to make any large adjustments increasing Atlanta’s water supply from either reservoir, arguing any major change would violate the 1958 Water Supply Act. All three states have said they prefer to have the matter handled by an agreement between the three states. That is particularly true for Alabama and Florida, which are likely to lose out to Atlanta and Georgia if the Army Corps of Engineers makes allocation decisions on its own.

“It has been a take first, seek permission later mindset,” J. Brian Atkins, division director of the Alabama Office of Water Resources, said. In his opening statement, Atkins said the effect of Atlanta’s use of the two reservoirs was particularly exacerbated during a severe 2007 drought. “Water quality in Alabama lakes and rivers deteriorated badly,” he said, according to prepared remarks. “Local Alabama water-supply providers had to incur huge costs to treat the degraded water in order for it to be fit for public consumption. Levels of Alabama reservoirs dropped sharply, inflicting major economic damage on Alabama’s recreation industry. Numerous industrial plants were threatened with shutdown because it became more and more difficult for those companies to meet their environmental permit requirements as a result of the degraded water in the rivers. The electric grid in Alabama was also threatened due to those types of environmental permit issues.”

Despite Sessions’ dogged efforts, the Corps seems to be leaning in favor of Georgia’s call for greater water supply to Atlanta, which could invite another round of litigation down the road. But if Alabama eventually loses out, Reid of the Alabama Rivers Alliance says his state may have itself to blame. Georgia has put out detailed reports on its water needs and implemented impressive conservation efforts that continue to bring down water use per capita in the Atlanta metro area. But Alabama has lagged behind.

“The state of Alabama has been relying on litigation for 20 years now without actually engaging in water planning ourselves,” Reid said. Alabama is preparing to create a water plan. But until that actually happens, “the Corps can only work with what the state puts out as its needs. And the state hasn’t done the analysis that’s necessary, I think, to argue that we’re not getting our fair share.”