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Congress takes up Georgia, Florida water wars dispute
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Forsyth County News

Pending water legislation

* Rep. Neal Dunn’s bill

* Sen. Bill Nelson’s bill

The longstanding “water wars” between Georgia and Florida has moved from the legal battlefield to the political one.

A week after a recommendation favoring Georgia was made in a U.S. Supreme Court case over water sharing, Florida lawmakers are now pressing the issue in Congress.

Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Florida, has introduced a resolution seeking to stop the corps from carrying out provisions of its revised water control manual for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which includes Lake Lanier in the headwaters.

And Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, has introduced a bill seeking to create a manual protecting and restoring “thriving and diverse populations of the full range of native fish and wildlife species.”

The Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association especially reacted last week to Nelson’s bill, saying it “requires a significant response by Georgia, not only in defense of Lake Lanier and its importance to the Georgia economy, but against what would be a precedent-setting action by Congress to take control of a watershed system away from the Corps of Engineers.”

In a statement last week, the organization also urged Georgia’s congressional delegation to defeat the bill while it is still in committee.

“The delegation has been successful at blocking previous attempts to take control of the ACF by Alabama, and we remain optimistic that they will prevail in this instance as well.”

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he is ready to help in Congress with “any future resolution the governors achieve.”

At the same time, “I will continue to vehemently oppose any legislation that seeks to undermine Georgia’s legitimate interests in these disputes.”

Isakson said he supports the corps “in managing the basins for its many users.”

Ryan Rowberry, a Georgia State University law professor and lawyer who once represented Florida in the water wars, said he doesn’t expect legislation on the water issues to gain much traction in Congress.

He believes Congress would just direct the states to hash out the issues between themselves and the corps.

Congress “has done that for some states in the West,” Rowberry said.

Georgia, Florida and Alabama have been grappling since 1990 over issues related to the tri-state basin.

In the latest dispute, Florida had accused Georgia of overusing water, leaving little to spare in the Apalachicola Bay at the Gulf of Mexico. Georgia’s actions, the state alleged, devastated the region’s seafood industry and the ecosystem.

Florida, in hoping the Supreme Court could force Georgia to throttle back on water usage, was dealt a blow Feb. 14. Maine lawyer Ralph Lancaster Jr., who presided over the case, recommended that justices deny Florida’s requests for relief, deferring to the corps and its newly revamped water manual.

The corps “retains extensive discretion in the operation of those federal reservoirs,” Lancaster said. “As a result, the corps can release (or not release) water largely as it sees fit.”

In documents released in December, the agency decided to grant Georgia’s requests for 242 million gallons per day in gross withdrawals from Lake Lanier and releases from Buford Dam to support downstream withdrawals of up to 379 million gallons per day.

The agency also said it was complying with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2013 order, which authorized 705 million gallons per day in withdrawals “without jeopardizing downstream needs,” Georgia Department of Natural Resources spokesman Kevin Chambers said at the time.

By comparison, the withdrawals in 2011 were 115 million gallons per day from Lanier and 246 million gallons downstream from Buford Dam.

However, the manual isn’t completely ready to roll out.

“At this point, we are still reviewing (public) comments,” corps spokesman Pat Robbins said.

The Army is expected to later OK the manual and an accompanying Environmental Impact Statement, he said.

Rowberry said he “was a little bit shocked” Florida didn’t include the corps in its suit against Georgia.

“It makes complete sense you need the corps involved to have, as (Lancaster) said, any real remedy,” he said.

The professor said he also believes the Supreme Court will probably issue a final ruling with a couple of months.

And, Rowberry added, justices likely will affirm Lancaster’s recommendation, unless he made some procedural mistakes — such as how he handled evidence or whether he allowed enough time on certain issues.

“That’s kind of why they have special masters,” Rowberry said.