Cost of Georgia’s water wars fight, storm cleanup is rising

The water wars fight in Georgia has lasted roughly three decades. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

The water wars fight in Georgia has lasted roughly three decades. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Georgia's tab for the legal fight over water rights with Alabama and Florida has now soared past $50 million. And the state's bill for emergency storm cleanup is rising, too.

Gov. Brian Kemp recently signed an executive order transferring another $8 million mostly to cover costs of litigation for the water wars dispute with Georgia's neighbors over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin.

The governor's order also shifted about $10.4 million to cover disaster response and recovery costs for Hurricane Michael and other severe storms. Georgia has already approved roughly $500 million in loans and other relief for the October hurricane.

The cost of the water dispute has steadily risen after Florida took the unusual step of asking the Supreme Court to severely limit Georgia's water withdrawals from the Chattahoochee River in October 2013. To the surprise of state leaders, the high court agreed to hear the challenge.

Georgia scored an initial victory in that case when an expert judge urged the Supreme Court to ditch those strict water limits in 2017. But the high court's order last year directing a judicial official to revisit parts of the arguments kept the challenge alive.

All told, Gov. Nathan Deal's administration spent more than $47 million in litigation in the decades-long water dispute, and he has said one of his biggest regrets was striking out on negotiations that could have averted the legal battle.

Kemp, meanwhile, has said he won't broker a compromise solely for the sake of ending the costly feud that will leave "hardworking Georgians high and dry."

(Kemp also faces legal fees associated with a demand from a U.S. House committee for documents about electoral policies and alleged voting irregularities during the 2018 midterm, but his office said the bulk of the legal costs in the order are linked to water wars.)

The financial toll of Hurricane Michael also continues to soar. State lawmakers approved a $470 million package to help farmers and others in southwest Georgia last year, and added $20 million more this year for loans and rural hospital aid.

That's separate from a federal emergency relief package that passed in June after eight months of delays. That's set to release roughly $3 billion for relief from victims of Michael and other severe storms – but it could take months to reach residents.