Water wars 'slap in the face' to Georgia yanked from spending bill

How much water Georgia can withdraw from Lake Lanier to meet its growth needs has been the subject of a long legal battle between Alabama, Florida and Georgia. (AJC/Bob Andres)

How much water Georgia can withdraw from Lake Lanier to meet its growth needs has been the subject of a long legal battle between Alabama, Florida and Georgia. (AJC/Bob Andres)

Updated 4:05 p.m. to reflect bill change:

WASHINGTON -- The constantly churning battle over water use among Georgia, Alabama and Florida resurfaced in a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, as House leaders agreed today to remove harmless-sounding language Georgia feared could tip the scales against it.

After months of behind the scenes wrangling, the thousands of pages covering every corner of the federal government initially included a partial win for Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., in the water fight.

Shelby was able to insert language requiring the Department of Justice to audit reports from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on "violations of water contracts" on the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa basin in an earlier version of the bill. The omnibus bill replaced a direct reference to the ACT with broader language directing DOJ to report on all such violations.

The Georgia delegation had a fit, saying such language could be used against Georgia in a court case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court -- though it was unclear exactly how. House leaders had promised Georgia to avoid weighing in on the fight, but the delegation feared Shelby had sneakily found a way to do so.

After Georgia -- and its 14 potentially swingable votes -- raised concerns both publicly and privately, House leaders agreed to strike the offending paragraph in favor of this:

"The agreement does not adopt language in either the House or the Senate report regarding Federal water usage violations."

Gov. Nathan Deal rallied the troops to strike the language, including a conference call with the delegation. He told us this afternoon via a spokeswoman:

"Having served in Congress, I know how difficult my request was and I am so proud of how tirelessly our delegation has worked to advance and protect the interests of Georgians."

Shelby spokeswoman Torrie Matous said the Alabama senator will not stop pushing on this issue:

"The question that everyone should be asking right now is, 'Why is Georgia so concerned with DOJ conducting a report of federal water contract violations?' Regardless, Senator Shelby will continue to look for ways to ensure that no state is able to violate federal contracts and exceed their allowances of water from the ACT or ACF river basins."

As the legal case remains pending and the three governors have met secretly to try to work out a deal, Georgia has continually pressed for Congress not to weigh in on the water wars in any form because it could upset the case. Alabama and Florida, which have not fared as well in the courts of late, have been trying in recent years to get Congress to lean on the scale.

Shelby, the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee covering DOJ, has used his clout throughout the process.

He first sought a more heavy-handed provision that would have blocked the Army Corps from reallocating water in the ACT basin until the governors of Alabama and Georgia work out an agreement.

Even the more subtle language raised hackles.

Here's what Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said during a meeting of the House Rules Committee on Wednesday:

"Because, again, from our perspective, if one side knows we won the arguments and then we have to go back and fight something again in a new law with language that was added in a rider -- this is wrong. This cannot continue to happen when you have riders put on that affect basically state issues and state problems ...

"The language that was added here is … basically taken as a slap in the face."

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., disagreed with Collins' view, pointing to all of the water wars language that was kept out of the bill.

"The new report language in the omnibus does not specifically target any water basin, but merely asks for a report from DOJ on any violations of water contracts reported by the Corps. However, of significant note, DOJ indicates that they have never seen any notifications of violations from the Corps to date and don't expect any."

Collins replied by citing supposedly anodyne language of a similar sort that was inserted into a 2014 water resources bill that ended up being cited in a lawsuit related to the water wars case:

"That's why we say that this is not simply just an issue of language and how it is written. It is a fact of a 30-plus year history that this is used for. ... We have history backing it up that it is problematic." 

The Georgia delegation met with leadership Thursday to press its case.

When asked if all 14 members of the delegation are threatening to vote against the omnibus without a change, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Coweta County, replied: "I think they can count."