Behind the scenes of the Senate’s “water wars”

The Georgia-Alabama-Florida “water wars” have played out in boardrooms and courtrooms throughout the Southeast. Last week the fight moved to the Senate cloakroom, with backdoor wrangling over language tucked into a massive bill dealing with water projects nationwide.

The Water Resources Development Act is of major importance to Georgia for several reasons, primarily in allowing the expansion project at the Port of Savannah to finally get under way. The bill would authorize projects such as Savannah that exceeded initial cost estimates.

But as this bill lumbered its way through the Senate, a regional battle escalated among neighboring senators. WRDA emerged from committee in March with a provision that required congressional approval for any Army Corps of Engineers change of more than 5 percent to a reservoir project.

That would mean Congress must approve any attempt by the Corps to tap into Lake Lanier for Atlanta’s drinking water or make any change in how water is allocated from Lake Allatoona.

After the U.S. Supreme Court in effect sided with Georgia last year in the dispute with downstream neighbors in Alabama and Florida, the Corps has been moving forward on a water plan. If Congress was authorized to accept or deny the Corps’ plan, it would throw a wrench into a process that had seemed to be tipping in Georgia’s favor.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who serves on the Environment and Public Works Committee, is believed to be behind the language. A Sessions spokesman declined to comment.

As WRDA hit the floor last week, Georgia Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss sought to alter that provision. By Thursday, they had secured an apparent victory: According to draft language Isakson’s office shared with the AJC, the final substitute amendment for the bill – the last step before passage, expected next week – will include some much less forceful language on the water wars.

The amendment is set to say “this ongoing water dispute raises serious concerns,” and raises the potential of congressional intervention while “strongly urg(ing)” the three governors come to an agreement on sharing the water. The last sentence is the most crucial: “This subsection does not alter existing rights or obligations under law.”

But before the Georgians could breathe a sigh of relief, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio submitted an amendment on the floor to resurrect the Sessions language. Sessions, Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., signed on.

That brought the Georgians’ staffs back to Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and David Vitter, R-La., pushing them to block any vote on the Rubio amendment. They were confident at week’s end that they had succeeded.

“We were pleased to work with the chairman and ranking member to strip the original bill language that would have negatively impacted Georgia and many other states,” Isakson and Chambliss said in a joint statement to the AJC. “We have always believed that this dispute must be solved at the state level, not in Washington. The new language we negotiated sends a strong message to the Army Corps of Engineers that it is to continue its ongoing work and to carry out its mission without interruption.”

Much larger disputes threaten WRDA as a whole, as Boxer and Vitter hope to navigate the Senate’s rocks and shoals next week. The House has not moved yet.

This is the first WRDA in a post-earmark world, which means Congress has had to remake the process from designating individual projects to telling the administration how to go about picking winners. But parochial concerns, as we saw last week, are always at the fore.