Old idea returns in Georgia-Florida water war case

The special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve the water war between Georgia and Florida dusted off this week a decade-old plan to tap the Tennessee River to ensure more water flows to metro Atlanta and, eventually, downstream to the Sunshine State.

Ralph Lancaster Jr., the Maine attorney who recently wrapped up the water war trial, ordered Georgia and Florida back to the negotiating table to consider the “importation of water” from outside the Chattahoochee River region “to supplement streamflow during drought periods.”

He also told attorneys for both states to continue mediation talks “in a good faith effort” to resolve the nearly three-decade-long dispute over a fair sharing of the Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola rivers. Lancaster set a Jan. 26 deadline for attorneys to report back to him on their negotiations. He will then make a recommendation to the nation’s high court, which is likely to rule later this year on whether Georgia is to blame for Florida’s water woes.

Florida sued Georgia in 2013 claiming the upriver state wastes water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, as well as an underlying aquifer, to the detriment of Florida's oyster industry, endangered species and its residents' way of life. In seeking an "equitable apportionment" of the water flowing between the states, Florida seeks a cap on Georgia's overall water consumption, as well as a 40 percent increase in the amount of water flowing into the state from Georgia during drought.

Florida faces a steep legal hurdle in proving harm by Georgia. Lancaster, though, has repeatedly warned that both states will likely be unhappy with his ruling. Georgia, metro Atlanta in particular, could suffer huge economic harm — as much as $18 billion over 10 years in one estimate — if Florida fully prevails.

Georgia claims that Florida itself, or Mother Nature, is to blame for the collapse of the Apalachicola oyster industry and other drought-related impacts. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in essence, sided with Georgia last month, stipulating that metro Atlanta will get virtually all the water it needs from the Chattahoochee River and Lake Lanier through 2050.

But the special master, in a series of questions and comments during the five-week trial in Portland, Maine, made it clear he wants Georgia and Florida to explore a variety of water-boosting possibilities, including sources beyond the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin.

“Suppose the Supreme Court ordered that a canal be created between the Tennessee River and the Chattahoochee River,” Lancaster wondered Nov. 29. “What effect would that have?”

Attorneys and other water war hangers-on in the half-filled courtroom were stunned that Lancaster would bring up such an audacious, expensive and largely moribund scheme. But tapping the Tennessee is an idea that has been around since at least 1988, when an Atlanta Regional Commission official broached the idea.

On the surface, the Tennessee seems an obvious choice to slake metro Atlanta’s insatiable thirst. Just a mile north of the state line, the river snakes from Knoxville, through Chattanooga, into Northern Alabama and Mississippi before returning to western Tennessee and joining the Ohio River in Kentucky.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal corporation and the country’s largest public power company, manages the 652-mile-long river. At Chattanooga, the river flows at 34,300 cubic feet per second — roughly 20 times the amount that typically flows through the Chattahoochee River at Buford Dam.

Rivers don’t follow political boundaries, or state lines, and the sharing of far-off streams is common among cities, states and countries. The Colorado River, for example, courses through seven Western states and supports Los Angeles (242 miles away), Las Vegas and other towns.

A handful of municipalities in North Georgia, including Dalton, buy Tennessee River water. In February 2008, Georgia Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, introduced legislation to move Georgia’s northwest boundary a mile north to capture a portion of the Tennessee River. Tennessee legislators roundly opposed the measure and any wholesale transfer of water to Georgia.

Georgia officials have toyed with the notion of subsidizing a high-speed rail line between Chattanooga and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in exchange for Tennessee River water.

Joining the Tennessee and Chattahoochee rivers, via pipes, could cost upward of $5 billion under one scenario. Transferring water from one river basin to another also raises the ire of environmentalists who say fish, plants and other aquatic life would be endangered.

“We are most shocked and disappointed that the special master would recommend an interbasin transfer from outside the ACF as a solution,” said Chris Manganiello, the water policy director for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “Such a scheme will only drag more neighboring states into this already protracted battle.”

Gov. Nathan Deal declined to comment. Shafer, now a key member of the state Senate’s leadership as its president pro tem, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Ryan Rowberry, a Georgia State University professor who worked on a previous Georgia v. Florida water battle, said the time might be ripe for a water-for-train swap. Time, though, is drawing nigh.

"This is a last-ditch effort to get the parties to try and come up with a sensible agreement so the master doesn't need to penalize both groups," Rowberry said.