Bill helps Savannah Port project, keeps ‘water wars’ status quo

In-depth coverage

The Port of Savannah pumps billions of dollars into the state’s economy, and roughly 100,000 jobs across metro Atlanta depend upon goods flowing in and out of the ports in Savannah and Brunswick. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered what proponents call Georgia’s most significant economic development project since Savannah River deepening studies got underway 15 years ago. Also, the AJC has been covering the tri-state water wars —- and their implications for our water supply —- for more than 20 years. Today, we look at how the Water Resources Development Act would affect both issues.

Expansion of the Savannah Port came one step closer as the U.S. Senate passed a massive water bill Wednesday. The bill also strikes a tricky balance in the Georgia-Alabama-Florida water wars.

The House is still writing its own version of the Water Resources Development Act, with final passage there not expected for months. The $12.2 billion bill touches U.S. waterways from coast to coast, including a pair of sections with profound impact on Georgia.

The first is a boost to the long-delayed deepening of the Port of Savannah from 42 feet to 47 feet, accommodating larger ships that may soon be en route through the Panama Canal. Congress must allow work to begin at the current projected cost – $652 million – which is far above original estimates.

Georgia officials have called the Savannah Port expansion the most critical economic development project in the state. About 100,000 jobs in the metro Atlanta region depend upon goods flowing in and out of the ports at Savannah and Brunswick, which contribute $39 billion to the state’s economy according to a University of Georgia study.

Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said after WRDA becomes law the port will enter an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers within the next month or so. Then the Corps starts handing out contracts and the digging begins.

The bill gives the project the go-ahead, though it still needs more funding. Georgia taxpayers have committed $231 million, with the federal government supposed to shoulder nearly all of the rest. Foltz said he expects “significant federal funding” in next year’s budget, after the project finally gets under way.

Georgia Republican U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss both supported the bill, primarily for its impact on the Savannah project, they said. Isakson called it “major progress.”

Chambliss added: “While I remain concerned with other provisions in the bill, it is my hope that these can be remedied as the legislative process moves forward.”

The concern arose from how the bill also served as a sparring ground for senators from Georgia, Florida and Alabama in the long-running dispute over how much water metro Atlanta can pull from nearby lakes before it flows downstream. Georgia wants to skim off more water to quench its growing population and spur development, while Alabama and Florida are vying to protect their industries and ecosystems that could be harmed by lower water levels.

A draft of the bill included language from U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., requiring Congressional approval for any Corps alteration of 5 percent or more to an existing reservoir plan. This would have injected Congressional politics into decisions over Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona – and many others around the country.

Governors of the three states have been working with the Corps and wrangling in the courts over a water plan for years. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that Georgia could tap into Lake Lanier for drinking water, a landmark victory.

The Corps is still crafting a water plan, and the court ruling shifted the playing field in Georgia’s favor. Chambliss and Isakson feared that giving Congress more say would shift it back, so the two senators worked to revise the bill.

The bill now expresses concern about the disputes along the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basins and raises the possibility of Congressional interference, but it adds: “This subsection does not alter existing rights or obligations under law.” An amendment by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to restore the Sessions language never got a vote.

Still, Georgia’s U.S. House members remain concerned about the legal impact even a bland reference to the dispute could have on the ongoing “water wars,” and they want it stripped altogether. Twelve of the state’s 14 House members sent a letter to the top members on the House transportation committee asking them to “oppose the inclusion of any similar language that could be viewed as taking sides in this interstate dispute.”

The transportation committee drafting and shepherding the bill includes six Floridians and none from the other two states, amplifying Georgians’ fears.

The final Senate vote Wednesday was 83-14.

In addition, the House and Senate are grappling with a new model for WRDA this year. It’s the first time the water bill has been reauthorized since both houses of Congress banned earmarks, the scandal-pocked practice by which members of Congress directed spending to individual projects.

Instead of sending money to specific places, Congress must now write the rules of how the executive branch can dole it out, debating along the way how explicit the law can be.