For Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, whiskey is for drinking—water is for fighting

Breaking down the never-ending water wars

Water wars

Illustration by Khoa Tran

For nearly 30 years, Georgia and two of its neighbors have fought in court over how water from Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona gets divvied up among the three states. Tensions remain at a rolling boil.

What’s at stake here? More than just making sure the taps don’t run dry. Georgia says its economy—particularly agriculture, one of its largest industries—could lose up to $1 billion if it has to draw down its usage. But Alabama needs, and deserves, its fair share of water to support its economy and prevent pollution. And Florida says the flow of freshwater into Apalachicola Bay is vital for oysters and other wildlife to thrive. Endangered species, such as the Gulf sturgeon and fat threeridge mussels, rely on steady flows.

Lake Lanier and Allatoona are in Georgia. Isn’t the water ours? Georgia observes—as do virtually all of the eastern United States—riparian (Latin for “banks”) water-rights doctrine. Anyone whose property touches a body of water has rights to reasonably use that water. But when someone uses too much upstream or close to the source, that leaves less water for those downstream—in this case, Alabama and Florida.

Who threw the first punch? In 1990, Alabama sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the division of the U.S. military that manages the two reservoirs, in federal court. Alabama wanted to block an agreement the Army Corps struck with metro Atlanta communities outlining how they would use water from the reservoirs north of Atlanta, which drain south in rivers to Alabama and Florida before ending in the Gulf of Mexico. Georgia and Florida joined the suit with their own respective claims, and two years later, all sides agreed to maintain the status quo—and even permit Georgia to draw more water from the reservoirs when needed because of drought or demand—while they studied the issue in depth. A delay tactic masquerading as a “compact” between the states was made in 1997 (and expired in 2004), and what started as one lawsuit became eight cases spread across six different federal courts. Those cases were essentially resolved by 2012, largely in Georgia’s favor. Other legal fights among the states over the Army Corps’ Water Control Manuals, which determine how water is managed in the basins, continue.

What’s the most pressing battle? In 2013, Florida went straight to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that slaking Georgia’s thirst during a drought caused the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay to collapse. It wanted a cap on metro Atlanta’s water use at current levels until 2050—and less during droughts—to protect the fragile oyster industry. To Georgia politicians and business leaders, that effectively means a cap on growth. In January, the Supreme Court gave Florida and Georgia 45 days to respond to a recommendation from Paul Kelly, a New Mexico–based “special master” appointed by the justices to oversee the case. Kelly said Georgia has conserved and acted reasonably and a cap wouldn’t necessarily have saved the bivalves. Oral arguments could begin in the spring or later this year, when the Supreme Court begins its new term.

Who will win? Besides the lawyers who have been paid roughly $50 million by Georgia taxpayers? Impossible to say. There is no end in sight.

The article appears in the April 2020 issue.