Water wars concern prompts revolt from Georgia delegation

For a while, it was Planned Parenthood that threatened to derail delicate negotiations to keep the government from shutting down. Then it was Syrian refugees.

And on Thursday, it was a harmless-sounding paragraph that could have tipped the scales ever so slightly in Georgia’s decades-long water wars with Alabama and Florida.

A Georgia delegation revolt prompted a frenzy in the Capitol’s leadership suites, but was calmed by a last-minute tweak in language connected to a $1.1 trillion bill to set spending policy through September. Both the House and Senate are set to vote Friday on the bill, and while it’s still unclear how much support Georgia will offer, the state got what it wanted.

An initial version of the bill included lines inserted by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., requesting a report from the Department of Justice on “violations of Federal water contracts involving multi-State river basins.”

Republicans and Democrats in the Georgia delegation quickly spotted the request. While they could not say what specific harm it would cause, they banded together to lobby leadership to remove any language that could be linked to the water wars.

Gov. Nathan Deal's office also saw the paragraph as a possible wrench in the legal disputes among Georgia, Alabama and Florida that stretch back decades. His office said it could be "devastating to Georgia businesses and families."

Rep. Doug Collins, a Gainesville Republican, called it a "slap in the face" to Georgia, after leadership had assured Georgia water wars language would be kept out of the final bill.

Shelby, despite losing the battle, did not concede the war.

“The question that everyone should be asking right now is, ‘Why is Georgia so concerned with DOJ conducting a report of federal water contract violations?’” Shelby spokeswoman Torrie Matous said. “Regardless, Senator Shelby will continue to look for ways to ensure that no state is able to violate federal contracts and exceed their allowances of water from the ACT or ACF river basins.”

Shelby has tried unsuccessfully to include more severe provisions, including one that would have blocked the Army Corps from reallocating water in the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa basin until the governors of Alabama and Georgia work out an agreement.

At a Rules Committee hearing, Appropriations Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said the report request should not be a problem considering “DOJ indicates that they have never seen any notifications of violations from the Corps to date and don’t expect any.”

But Georgia is hyper-sensitive to ongoing efforts by Shelby — a powerful chairman of the appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Department of Justice — to involve Congress in the water wars. The downstream states have complained about economic and environmental harm from metro Atlanta’s water consumption, but Georgia has won recent court victories on water rights.

In 2014, Georgia worked to weaken Shelby language in a water resources law that would have seriously shifted the water wars terrain. Instead, the water law simply states that the tri-state dispute “raises serious concerns” and Congress recommends the governors come to a decision.

But even that language has been used in the ongoing legal case as ammunition against Georgia, Collins said.

In this week’s spending bill, the language was so vague that it did not even mention the ACT or Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basins.

So what’s the potential harm? Delegation members could not say for sure, only that Shelby would not act without trying to gain an advantage for his state.

“The question you have to ask yourself is: If you’re the subcommittee appropriations chairman in the United States Senate, you can ask the DOJ for any report you want to and they’ll produce it for you absolutely any time you ask,” said Rep. Rob Woodall, a Lawrenceville Republican.

“So why is it if you want this report so badly you hadn’t asked for it already? Why do you need legislative language that goes down in the annals of legislative history to get your report?”

The Georgia delegation took its concerns to top House leaders Thursday, knowing the state’s 14 votes could help swing a close tally.

“They know how to count,” said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Coweta County Republican.

By late afternoon, Georgia’s concerns were assuaged.

On another Georgia priority, the bill grants the Obama administration’s $21 million request for construction on the Savannah Port dredging project. It also increases a pot of unpledged construction money that Savannah could grab a piece of early next year.

Those are just some of the parochial issues jammed inside of thousands of pages of bill and addenda and brought to swift votes this week after lengthy bipartisan negotiations.

The water wars win gives Georgians a big carrot to vote yes, but many members were publicly undecided heading into a Friday vote.

Republicans are upset the legislation does not block the resettlement of Syrian refugees or snatch funding from Planned Parenthood. Democrats don’t like that the bill ends a decades-long ban on oil exports.

“We’ll have American-produced oil refined abroad and imported back at a higher cost to America’s taxpayers, so the whole thing stinks,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, a Lithonia Democrat who said he would probably vote no.

But if it fails, a government shutdown looms and lawmakers would have to delay their holiday break. Friday is expected to be their last day in session for the year.

“It’s like every big year-end bill,” Woodall said. “There’s some good stuff in it. There’s some awful stuff in it.”