Are Georgia’s water wars over?

“Everybody’s concerned they won’t get enough water at some point in the future. That especially comes to light when you have droughts: When the rivers’ levels start going down, these tensions flare up.”

Are the water wars over?
The Apalachicola River meets the Gulf of Mexico.

Photograph by Getty Images

In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request by Florida to limit the amount of water Georgia can withdraw from a shared river basin—the latest and most significant development in a tri-state battle over how to apportion the waters that flow through those two states and Alabama, a fight that’s cost untold millions of dollars and sparked multiple lawsuits. The decision was widely regarded as a victory for Georgia. So: Are the water wars finally over?

“No. You can just write one word and hand it in,” says Katherine Zitsch, director of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District and managing director of natural resources at the Atlanta Regional Commission, which has been a litigant in the wars. (One of its roles is to interact with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of local governments on regional water issues.)

At issue are two major river basins: the  Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT), which drain into the Gulf of Mexico in Florida and Alabama, respectively. But they flow from Georgia, which draws water from both basins. The water wars started because the two downstream states felt they weren’t getting their share of the rivers’ bounty, particularly in light of the rapid growth—and accompanying demands—of the Atlanta metro. “Everybody’s concerned they won’t get enough water at some point in the future. That especially comes to light when you have droughts: When the rivers’ levels start going down, these tensions flare up,” says Gil Rogers, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Georgia office.

In 2008, representatives from all three states formed the ACF Stakeholders, which brought together representatives from different interest groups—local governments, environmental advocates, utility companies, farmers—to talk about how the region’s resources could be better managed. In 2015, the ACFS presented a plan to state and federal leaders—but by that time Florida had filed its lawsuit, so officials wouldn’t commit to the recommendations pending the outcome.

Florida had alleged that Georgia’s withdrawals—for drinking water in metro Atlanta, agriculture in southwest Georgia, and industry throughout—put a strain on the Apalachicola, the river created by the convergence of the Flint and the Chattahoochee. The Apalachicola supports a famous oyster industry in its estuary, which Florida argued was harmed when Georgia took too much water during a 2012 drought. Unable to prove Georgia was directly responsible, Florida lost its case—at least, that’s how most people interpreted the ruling. The executive director and riverkeeper of the Flint Riverkeeper, Gordon Rogers, has a different take: “The water wars are over, and Florida won.”

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Rogers believes decades of water wars—both legal action and the specter of it—have led Georgia to work toward more conservation in metro areas and in the ag sector, which benefits everyone: “We’re going to be pushing a lot more water down the system during the next drought than we did 20 years ago.” Metro Atlanta’s per capita water usage has decreased by 30 percent since 2000—despite a population increase of 1.3 million. “It’s not metro Atlanta, it’s not Georgia—it’s a lack of rainfall,” Zitsch says. “It’s all these different things that come together.”

In the last 20 years, Georgia has weathered a number of droughts the federal government describes as “exceptional,” its most severe designation, and both droughts and large rainfall events are expected to increase in number and severity due to climate change. How can the region prepare? Zitsch suggested studying ways to store more water in times of plenty for use during dry spells. Even starting with a single idea—like raising Lake Lanier by two feet—could bring people together in collaboration. “Sometimes that’s what it takes to get people in a room, and then a conversation can begin about what’s possible.” The key is to act before it’s necessary. “If we’re not thinking about 2070, it’ll sneak up on us, even though it seems like a very long time from now,” Zitsch says.

Meanwhile, the water wars rage on: Alabama has two active lawsuits against the Army Corps of Engineers, which creates detailed plans for managing both river basins. Because of the Corps’ regulatory role, the water wars have consisted largely of states—when they’re not suing one another—siding with the Corps because they liked what it was doing or suing the Corps because they didn’t. “We do hope that one day we’ll collaborate instead of litigate,” Zitsch says. But in the meantime: “It’s kind of like the Hatfields and McCoys: You keep fighting because you’ve always fought. At some point, you forget what you were fighting about.”

This article appears in our April 2023 issue.