Georgia prepares for new phase in long-running water wars

The story so far

Previously: Georgia, Alabama and Florida have wrestled for decades over use of water from the Chattahoochee River and Lake Lanier.

The latest: The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in November to hear a Florida lawsuit seeking a cap on Georgia's withdrawals from the Chattahoochee at 1992 levels.

What's next: Georgia must respond to Florida's complaint in February.

After more than two decades of legal battles with neighbors over regional water rights, Georgia officials have steeled themselves for an even longer and costlier fight over the resource.

Gov. Nathan Deal has beefed up the staff to handle the new round of high-stakes litigation with Florida, and he tapped a water czar who would, for the first time, coordinate the state’s efforts. And lawmakers will soon consider a fresh legislative push to claim water from the mighty Tennessee River.

Once, state officials openly talked about a timely resolution of the long-running dispute. Now, weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up a Florida lawsuit, Georgia is digging in.

“We are at the beginning of the process. And it’s a long process,” said Judson Turner, the state’s environmental chief and new water czar. “This is a serious matter. And we are taking it seriously.”

The chain reaction was triggered by a last-ditch legal maneuver by Florida. In October 2013, Florida took the unusual step of asking the high court to limit Georgia's water withdrawals from the Chattahoochee River to 1992 levels, when metro Atlanta's population hovered around 3 million people. It now surpasses 5.4 million.

To the surprise of state leaders, the U.S. Supreme Court breathed new life into the fight on Nov. 3 by agreeing to hear Florida’s challenge. It was a rare setback for Georgia, which has won a series of court victories in the long-running fight with Florida and Alabama.

“We seem to be re-entering this pattern of litigation,” said Gil Rogers, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Atlanta. “I think it’s always possible that we can get to a settlement, but the best way to do that is to bring the stakeholders together. And the chances of that happening through court action aren’t very likely.”

A second-term expansion

State planners are bracing for a rush of new legal fees. Deal’s budget proposal, released Friday, includes about $11 million for the governor’s emergency funds, which he would tap to pay attorney costs.

“It’s a moving target,” said Teresa MacCartney, the governor’s chief financial officer. “It’s hard to say.”

Chris Riley, Deal’s top aide, said he’s sure of one thing: Expect the final cost to be hefty. “It’s going to cost a lot,” he said.

John Allen, a veteran of the tri-state litigation who now works in private practice, is to be hired to be Turner’s deputy. Two Environmental Protection Division staffers, Russ Pennington and Mary Walker, will move into expanded new roles. Trip Addison, a longtime Deal aide, will also join the agency.

At the heart of the legal fight is Florida’s accusation that Georgia takes too much water for metro Atlanta at the expense of oysters, and the industry that thrives on them, in Apalachicola Bay. Georgia officials said they are entitled to draw what they need for the state’s growing population from Lake Lanier, and a string of court rulings have tilted the playing field in Georgia’s favor in recent years.

Now, Georgia is on the defensive again. Much will depend on Ralph Lancaster, the Maine attorney appointed to be a “special master” to oversee the pleadings. Lancaster will be able to summon witnesses and issue subpoenas, and he will likely file reports directly to the high court’s justices as the case proceeds.

Deal said he signed off on the staff shake-up to be prepared for the “rather aggressive” timeline set by Lancaster.

“I never predict what’s going to happen once you’re in a court, especially a federal court,” Deal said in an interview. “Anything could happen there. But the indication from the special master is that he wants at least his part of it to be included in a rather expeditious fashion.”

A northern front?

The state is taking steps toward cushioning its own water supply from another devastating drought, including a series of changes to Deal's water supply initiative that give the state new powers to tap into reservoirs and wells built with state financing.

And a long-simmering fight could bubble up again as Georgia seeks to grab territory in a dispute with Tennessee that could give the Peach State coveted access to the Tennessee River. The flow of that waterway is about 15 times greater than that of the one Atlanta depends on for water.

A 2013 resolution urges the state to sue for the rights to an uninhabited strip of land that leads to the mighty river, though Deal has said he doesn't want "any more water wars in the courts."

State Rep. Harry Geisinger, a Roswell Republican who has led the push, introduced a proposal this month that would give Georgia the legal ability to transfer water from the river if both states agree. An engineering firm drafted preliminary plans to pipe water through North Georgia, though state officials believe the costs would be extraordinary.

Still, Geisinger said Georgia needs to tap a vast new water source for its thirsty residents to guarantee enough supply for the state’s growth.

“This is the solution to the next 100 years in the state of Georgia,” Geisinger said. “If we have another disastrous drought, you’re not going to believe how bad it’s going to be.”