The U.S. Senate voted 83-14 to approve a changed version of the Water Resources Development Act without including an earlier restriction backed by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). That rule would have undercut an appellate court finding that metro Atlanta can legally take water from Lake Lanier on the Chattahoochee River. The ruling prevented a water crisis for Georgia and proved a major legal setback for Alabama and Florida.
Lake Lanier is part of a system formed by the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint rivers that serves all three states. Georgia wants more water from Lake Lanier to serve a growing population. Alabama and Florida have opposed the request, arguing that metro Atlanta uses too much water upstream, leaving too little for downstream communities, industry and wildlife. Alabama and Georgia have a separate conflict over the watershed formed by the Alabama, Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers.
“We have always believed that this dispute must be solved at the state level, not in Washington,” Georgia senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson said in a statement last week.
A spokesman for Sessions said he could not immediately comment on the vote.
Under the plan supported by Sessions, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would have been forced to seek congressional approval anytime a request for municipal or industrial water cumulatively changed the storage plans for a federal reservoir by 5 percent or more. Water providers say Georgia has exceeded that threshold at both Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona. Given the political feud between the states, it was uncertain whether Congress would have approved giving Georgia more water.
The restriction on water use would have affected all federal reservoirs, though it would have carried immediate consequences in the Southeast.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tried unsuccessfully on behalf of the Alabama and Florida delegations to restore the water restriction after Georgia’s Senate delegation had it struck from the bill. Rubio said resolving the dispute would end the damage that low water levels have inflicted on the oyster fishery in Apalachicola Bay and other industries.
Instead, the legislation backed by the Senate urges the governors of Alabama, Florida and Georgia to negotiate a resolution to the water conflict.
The fight could resurface when the House of Representatives drafts its version of the water bill. A dozen members of Georgia’s House delegation have signed a joint letter asking the leaders of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure from supporting any rules “that could be viewed as taking sides in this interstate dispute,” the letter said.