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Basin including Chattahoochee River most endangered in country, group says

GAINESVILLE — Outdated water management and rising demand has placed the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola-Flint River Basin in Georgia, Florida and Alabama, of which Lake Lanier is an integral part, at the top of the country’s most endangered list, according to the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group American Rivers.

In a report released today titled “America’s Most Endangered Rivers,” the group urges the three states to complete a water-sharing agreement as the best means to improve management of the critical resource.

“The water conflict that has gripped the region for almost three decades has come to a head with Florida’s U.S. Supreme Court suit against Georgia and the latest attempt by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to update its protocols of managing the basin,” the report states.

More than 4 million people, including 70 percent of metro Atlanta, receive their drinking water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers.

But demand from a growing population poses a long-term threat to the health of river ecosystems and the availability of water in times of drought, according to advocates. 

“While the metro Atlanta region has made significant strides in water conservation, we are still a long way from reaching our true conservation potential,” said Jason Ulseth, the lead river protection advocate and spokesman for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

“All river users must pursue aggressive water-saving measures to further limit the waste of these precious water resources as wisely as possible.”

Georgia and Florida officials have recently joined mediation sessions to achieve a potential settlement, and another meeting is scheduled for later this month.

Florida has charged that Georgia’s “overconsumption” of water in the basin has created an economic hardship for the Sunshine State, particularly on the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay. Georgia has denied the allegations.

The state Environmental Protection Division refuted the report in a statement to The Times, arguing that plans were in place to improve management of the entire river system.

“While the ACF Basin provides water for municipal and industrial water supply, threatened and endangered species, hydropower generation, agricultural irrigation and critical aquatic species and floodplain habitats, such competing needs do not make it a ‘most endangered’ waterway,”  said Jud Turner, director of the Georgia EPD.

“Georgia is actively implementing programs, and the corps has been operating federal dams on the Chattahoochee arm to help meet most, if not all, of these needs.  Additional improvement in operations of these dams can be made to better meet this range of water needs.”

The EPD announced in late January that Georgia no longer required the proposed Glades Reservoir in northern Hall County to meet the state’s water supply demands through 2050.

Instead, the state is only considering Glades as additional storage to augment downstream flows on the Chattahoochee River in times of drought.

This shift could be part of a “water wars” settlement.

“It may not feel like this is a river basin in trouble right now given all the recent rain,” Ulseth said. “However, the next severe drought is a certainty, and we must start making significant strides in water sharing and management now to prevent catastrophe in the future.”