Georgia, Alabama reach deal to end years-long ‘water wars’ dispute

Agreement still needs to be approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
A general view of a boater on Lake Lanier, Thursday, June 30, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

A general view of a boater on Lake Lanier, Thursday, June 30, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz /

One of the main battles in Georgia’s decades-long ‘water wars’ fight with its neighbors in Alabama is over, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Tuesday.

In a news release, Kemp said Alabama and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had reached an agreement that will end a lawsuit filed by Alabama over water use in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin.

The fight is one of multiple fronts in the ongoing water disputes between Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Those lengthy and costly court battles have put metro Atlanta’s main source of drinking water at risk, threatening to throttle Georgia’s growth and economic vitality. But in recent years, Georgia has successfully parried many of the challenges from its neighbors.

The basin at the center of Tuesday’s announced agreement includes Lake Lanier, the main source of water for metro Atlanta, and fans out to touch Columbus, Albany, eastern Alabama and a large chunk of the Florida Panhandle.

Alabama’s lawsuit centered around a 2016 “Master Water Control Manual” adopted by the Army Corps for managing water supplies in the basin. That plan gave Georgia permission to store more water in Lake Lanier to meet the needs of the rapidly growing Atlanta area.

But Alabama sued in 2017, claiming the plan allows Georgia to use more than its fair share of water, putting users downstream in Alabama at risk in times of drought. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia ruled in Georgia’s favor in 2020 and 2021, but Alabama appealed the decisions to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Under the agreement announced Tuesday, the Army Corps will study the impact of operating its dams and reservoirs to maintain new minimum water-flow levels at two locations: Columbus and Columbia, Alabama, located 90 miles south just across the border on the Chattahoochee River.

At Columbus, the Corps would be required to ensure that a minimum average daily flow of 1,350 cubic feet per second is maintained. Downstream in Columbia, flows of 2,000 cubic feet per second would be required on weekdays. If reservoir storage dwindles during a drought, minimum average daily flows would only need to be achieved two days a week.

The proposal also calls on the Corps to maintain a minimum elevation of 76 feet at Lake Seminole in southwest Georgia, about 20 miles from Bainbridge.

The agreement appears likely to settle another of the long-running water disputes between the two states, which have battled in court over various issues since 1990.

Kemp’s office said the plan must still go through an environmental review and a public comment period.

It also still needs a stamp of approval from the Army Corps. If the Corps adopts the plan after a one-year review period, Alabama has agreed to dismiss the case. If the agency rejects the proposal, Alabama’s lawsuit would resume.

Kemp cheered the resolution and said it would provide long-awaited certainty to water users in metro Atlanta and rural, southwest Georgia.

“This agreement is a win-win for our states, with neither side sacrificing what is important to them,” Kemp said in a release.

Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama echoed Kemp’s sentiments and expressed relief that the dispute might finally reach a conclusion.

“Alabama and Georgia have a lot in common. But we have spent a lot of time — and a lot of money on attorney fees — fighting in court over water,” Ivey said.

Katherine Zitsch — senior water policy advisor for the Atlanta Regional Commission, which is also a party to the case — also praised the deal.

“We look forward to participating in the Corps’ public comment and environmental review process and are eager to find new opportunities to collaborate outside of the courtroom,” Zitsch said.

In a statement, Katie Kirkpatrick, the president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, one of the key business and civic groups that have rallied in support of Georgia’s position, hailed Kemp and Ivey, calling the agreement “a momentous day for the stakeholders in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Basin.”

“Metro Atlanta’s leadership in water stewardship has been — and will continue to be — crucial to working cooperatively with our neighbors,” she said.

For years, Georgia had also been embroiled in litigation with its neighbors to the south in Florida over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin.

In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered the most significant ruling to date in the saga when it ruled against Florida, which had argued water use from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers by Georgia residents during a 2012 drought killed its iconic oyster industry in the Apalachicola Bay.

Still, other “water wars” disputes remain unresolved.

Three environmental groups — the National Wildlife Federation, the Florida Wildlife Federation, and the Apalachicola River and Bay Keeper — are continuing to pursue their challenge to the Corps’ Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin management plan at the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, a separate fight between Georgia and Alabama over water storage at Lake Allatoona, part of the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) Basin, is still pending in district court in D.C.