Georgia faces new threats in water wars feud

The most imminent challenge is lodged in a thick spending bill, where Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, one of the chamber’s most powerful Republicans, launched what is seen as a serious threat to the balance of power between the states.

And Georgia lawyers are hunkering down in hopes of fending off an appeal by Florida attorneys that could take years of litigation to settle. The latest stage in that fight comes Tuesday, when Georgia attorneys hope a legal maneuver can persuade the high court to dismiss the case.

The three neighbors have sparred for decades over how much water Georgia can squeeze from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) basins before the rivers flow downstream into Alabama and Florida.

Fast-growing metro Atlanta is seen as the major culprit, while Alabama farmers and Florida oystermen pay the price. Georgia leaders say they have made great strides in conservation and don’t get proper credit for returning water to the basins.

Georgia had won a string of legal battles tipping the long-running fight in its favor, including a 2011 federal appeals court decision that found metro Atlanta had the legal right to tap Lake Lanier for drinking water. The North Georgia reservoir supplies more than 3 million Atlanta-area residents, and state leaders warned that restricting the resource would be devastating.

Ever since, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has worked to flesh out how much water can go to metro Atlanta and how much should be released downstream to support farmers, fuel power plants and sustain aquatic species.

But that work could soon come to a halt. Shelby last week inserted language into a Senate appropriations bill that would block the corps from reallocating water flows in the ACT basin until the governors of Georgia and Alabama agree to a deal. The corps approved new manuals allocating water this month.

“The resolution of the decades-old water rights dispute between Alabama and Georgia depends on the states acting as equal partners,” Shelby said in a prepared statement.

“That is why I included a provision in the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill to ensure that the two states first formally agree on a process to collectively study water use in the ACT River Basin before any new allocations of water to either state may proceed.”

Secret meetings

Gov. Nathan Deal recently arranged secretive meetings with his counterparts in Alabama and Florida to hash out the decades-old dispute, and he said in a recent interview that he senses there’s a “willingness to re-engage” outside the courts.

So far, though, there have been no signs that it’s gaining traction, and two people with knowledge of the negotiations say a breakthrough does not appear in sight. State officials declined to comment on the developments this week, pointing to a recent gag order issued by the attorney overseeing the litigation that warns attorneys of a “relentless and ruthless media.”

Georgia’s congressional delegation is gearing up for a fight.

“All of the language is completely unacceptable to Georgia, and Senator (Johnny) Isakson plans to use every tool at his disposal to fight to strip it out if this bill reaches the floor,” said Amanda Maddox, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Republican.

Much is riding on the position of a pair of southern Republicans: Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, the chairman of the mighty Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who heads the energy and water subcommittee. Both said through spokesmen that they were neutral, although an Alexander aide pointed to Shelby’s position as a “senior member” of the budget-writing committee.

Shelby is one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress and a top appropriator, while Georgia’s delegation lost decades of seniority this year with the retirement of Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss and the loss of top House appropriator Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican who left his seat in an unsuccessful bid to replace Chambliss.

Neither Isakson nor freshman Republican Sen. David Perdue sits on the Appropriations Committee, but Georgia does have Albany Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop and Ranger Republican Rep. Tom Graves on the House side. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., meanwhile, is the third-most-senior Republican on the committee.

The House version of the spending bill, which has already passed the chamber, does not weigh in on the water wars.

There’s a chance that the Senate version, which cleared committee earlier this month, gets tied up in a wider struggle between the Obama administration and Congress over spending levels. But that doesn’t mean the coast is clear for Georgia lawmakers, as it could result in a mad scramble late in the year over a spending bill negotiated behind closed doors.

A grueling legal quarrel

Florida, meanwhile, is focusing its efforts in the legal system after the Supreme Court made its surprising decision in November to hear the Sunshine State’s appeal contending that Georgia drew more than its fair share from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers.

That decision led both states to brace for a bruising new phase of litigation that will cost millions and could drag on for years. Deal appointed a first-ever water czar to coordinate the state’s efforts and tapped $4 million from an emergency fund to fund the initial costs of the litigation.

The next legal showdown comes Tuesday in Washington, when Georgia attorneys will clash with Florida’s lawyers over whether the federal government should be a party in the case, too.

Florida contends that Georgia’s arguments are nothing more than “recycled” fodder that the Supreme Court has already rejected, while Georgia claims the feds are a “required party” because the Army Corps of Engineers operates a string of dams and reservoirs in the basin.

Deal, for his part, said he still holds out hope for an out-of-court settlement with the two neighbors. In an interview before the gag order, he sounded a note of optimism over a breakthrough that has proved elusive since the early 1990s.

“It is a multifaceted problem and one we’ll never solve without imagination and ingenuity,” he said. “We’ve made good progress on our side of the line, and both governors have indicated a willingness to re-engage to see if we can finalize it. It’s better for us to re-engage than have a court try to decide it.”