Water bill moves forward as Fla. effort to intervene in “water wars” fails

A multibillion-dollar water resources bill that would allow the Savannah Port deepening to begin was unanimously approved by a House committee – and is expected to come to the full House next month — as an amendment pushed by U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., was turned away.

Southerland, who represents the Apalachicola Bay where oyster populations and livelihoods are dwindling, wanted to give Congress the authority to approve any major changes in Army Corps of Engineers water plans. This would bring congressional politics into Corps plans for Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona, as well as others around the country.

In the multi-decade dispute, Alabama and Florida complain that metro Atlanta leaves them dry by pulling too much water from river basins. Georgia political and business leaders say they have made great strides in conservation and have a right to their own state’s water.

Talks among the three governors have not yielded an agreement, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott last month vowed to take the water dispute to the U.S. Supreme Court. The lawsuit has not yet been filed.

A 2011 decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals tilted the playing field in Georgia’s direction. That court ruled it is legal for the Corps to draw from Lanier to supply Atlanta drinking water.

The interstate feud has played out in Congress, as well. Georgia’s senators worked to defeat a similar effort in the Senate to give Congress power over the Corps’ water-plan changes.

The challenge for Georgia’s House members was that the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which considered the bill Thursday, has six Floridians and no Georgians.

Once they were tipped off to Southerland’s move, Georgia’s House members started lobbying committee members. Rep. Doug Collins, a Gainesville Republican who launched a caucus to look at Army Corps issues, buttonholed his fellow freshmen with the message that the amendment could affect their states, too.

“This bill should (not) be putting the thumb on the scale of one (state) or the other, and that’s across the country, not just in our situation,” Collins said.

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Coweta County Republican, made his case directly to House Speaker John Boehner, who “didn’t feel like we needed to get involved in any multi-state water issues and water compacts,” Westmoreland recounted.

Just before the hearing began Thursday morning, Rep. Rob Woodall, a Lawrenceville Republican, stopped by to have one final chat with committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., making sure he was on board.

He was.

Southerland gave an impassioned speech on behalf of the oystermen in his district whose livelihood is threatened, he said, by low flows in the Apalachicola River and a mismanaged Army Corps that allows Atlanta to take water at will.

“My people, our people, American people need this,” Southerland said.

The University of Florida and Gov. Scott himself have acknowledged that overfishing has played a role alongside low river flows in the oysters’ decline.

Shuster said he is sympathetic to the plight of Southerland’s district but his amendment “goes too far.” Shuster replaced it with a “sense of Congress” resolution urging the three states to come to an amicable agreement.

Southerland accepted the pre-orchestrated defeat, saying he would like a Government Accountability Office study and a committee hearing on the issue in the future. Everything passed by a voice vote.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which authorizes billions of dollars worth of water projects around the country, is expected on the House floor next month. If it passes, it must be merged with a Senate bill that passed in May.

Both versions authorize deepening the Port of Savannah from 42 feet to 47 feet at a cost of more than $650 million, a long-awaited boost for the state’s highest-priority economic development project. The actual federal funding for the project is expected in the years to come, but the state already has set aside more than $200 million to get started.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.