Senate dodges renewed water wars feud, proposes $42.7 million for Savannah port

WASHINGTON -- The Senate’s draft spending bill for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a mixed bag for some of Georgia’s biggest economic interests.

The measure, which was unveiled Thursday, did not appear to include any language similar to what emerged last year that could tip the balance of power in the Peach State’s long-running water wars with Alabama and Florida. However, the bill only included about half the money that boosters of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project wanted for construction this year.

The bill, which would fund the Army Corps and other federal agencies for the budget year that begins Oct.1, matches the Obama administration’s February proposal for the port expansion, setting aside $42.7 million for the project, Georgia’s largest in terms of economic development.

That’s about half of what Georgia lawmakers and proponents of the project have called for this year alone to keep the $706 million project on schedule.

The spending bill is being considered on the Senate floor next week, and big changes are certainly possible. But it's tough for Congress to make changes to specific projects with the earmark ban in effect. Two GOP aides said there is general money in the Army Corps' construction account that the agency could later decide to send to the Savannah project.

Meanwhile, the Senate bill appears to be free of the water rights-related language that sent the Georgia delegation into a last-minute tizzy in December to remove.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said he didn't try to add the provisions to the Army Corps spending bill this year but that he's keeping his options open moving forward.

“I think there are other approaches," he said Thursday, adding that he thinks the dispute will ultimately be settled in the courts. “It’s been going on for 20-some years. It ain’t going away.” Earlier in the year, Shelby floated conducting an investigation of his own into Georgia's water use as chairman of a panel that oversees the Justice Department.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill will have several more chances to alter water policy this year. Later this spring both the House and Senate are expected to begin work on the large bill that reauthorizes federal water-related programs. The House will also has its own version of the Army Corps spending bill to consider.

Meanwhile, the cost of Georgia’s legal battle with Florida over regional water rights is rising.

Gov. Nathan Deal this month transferred another $11 million from his emergency fund to float the costs of the litigation.

All told, the state has so far spent more than $20 million on lawyers on the fight– on top of $20 million previously spent over the last 25 years. Georgia has tasked a small army of attorneys – about 70 at last count – who have pored over 4 million documents and at least 660,000 emails produced by Florida in the case.

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman is a senior reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's enterprise team, where she covers gender, the urban-rural divide and other...