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Federal law to put Lake Lanier access back in state control

Georgia, Florida blame each other in water wars trial

The month-long trial aimed at settling a long-standing water access dispute between Georgia and Florida ended Dec. 1 with a special master imploring both sides to negotiate a settlement.

“Please settle this blasted thing,” Special master Ralph Lancaster said. “I can guarantee you that at least one of you is going to be unhappy with my recommendation — and perhaps both of you.”

Florida blames the booming Atlanta metropolitan area and agriculture in Georgia for causing low river flows that have imperiled fisheries in Apalachicola Bay. Georgia contends there’s not enough evidence to support drastic action that could imperil the state’s economy.

The lawsuit played out for a month with dozens of witnesses and hundreds of exhibits in Portland, Maine’s largest city, more than 1,000 miles from the disputed Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin that straddles the two states and Alabama and has Lake Lanier in its headwaters.

Florida contends Georgia us siphoning away more than its fair share, causing the fresh water flow to dry up, killing endangered mussels, harming tupelo and cypress trees and increasing the salinity of the Apalachicola Bay, causing a die-off of oysters.

Georgia contends that it consumes only a small portion of the water and that there’s no clear and convincing evidence to support restrictions that would imperil its economy and drinking water with the goal of helping a much smaller number of residents in Florida.

In mid-December, Congress passed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation, or WIIN, Act, in which U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall passed language that removes the federal government from hearing interstate water disputes, placing the decision-making back in the hands of the states.

Woodall, who serves Cumming and south Forsyth, said Lancaster will still come down with a recommendation, “but I don’t know if he would have taken the case to begin with.”

— Kayla Robins
* The Associated Press contributed to this report.

EAST FORSYTH -- Legislation addressing water infrastructure needs throughout the nation is expected to be signed by President Obama, and part of the bill’s language was written by U.S. District 7 Rep. Rob Woodall, who represents Cumming and south Forsyth, to benefit Georgia in the tristate water war affecting Lake Lanier.

The aspect of the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation, or WIIN, Act that Woodall worked on will restore the long-standing deferment to states’ authority in resolving water disputes without the federal government getting involved.

Woodall’s legislation was in response to language inserted by Alabama’s senators into the 2014 Water Resources Reform and Development Act that made Congress the arbiter of the tristate water dispute between Alabama, Georgia and Florida if a resolution could not be reached by the states.

“The language inserted into WRRDS two years ago intentionally and wrongly put Congress’ thumb and the heavy hand of the federal government on the scales of a state water issue — an incredibly dangerous precedent for all states,” Woodall said.

Florida jumped on the addition in 2014, according to the Solicitor General’s brief to the Supreme Court, which said “the 2014 Act undermine(s) Georgia’s contention that Florida’s alleged injuries are not substantial enough to warrant equitable apportionment proceedings.”

According to previous reports in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, “Georgia won a string of recent court victories in the long-running fight with Florida and Alabama over water rights, but the streak was snapped in 2014 when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a last-ditch legal maneuver by Florida seeking to limit Georgia’s water withdrawals from the Chattahoochee River to 1992 levels.”

Woodall said a different between 2014 and the WIIN Act — which passed with 360 votes on the House floor and 78 in the Senate, including

both Florida senators — is that Alabama senators inserted their language during the conference committee process “under the cover of darkness.”

“Especially if you’re in the West, where they have these terrible water disputes all the time, you absolutely don’t want to see the federal government come in and pick winners and losers,” Woodall said. “This is not just a Florida-Georgia-Alabama issue. It’s for anyone who is worried about keeping local control.”

The change in 2014 was a step away from the Water Supply Act of 1958, when Congress provided “federal assistance to state and local stakeholders for the development of water supplies for municipal and industrial use.”

In the five decades since then, Congress has avoided intervening in interstate disputes, Woodall said.

When former Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House, he had the opportunity to push through pro-Georgia legislation that would have tipped the scales against Florida and Alabama.

“It wasn’t the right thing to do,” Woodall said. “Our only intent is to restore the long-standing and appropriate neutrality that existed prior to the addition.”

He said the bill’s passing is a “big reflection of who we are in Forsyth. To be the biggest reservoir of drinking water in the region … what we have done in water conservation is amazing.”

The WIIN Act also preserves the existing role of the Army Corps of Engineers in managing water levels in Lake Lanier by way of the Master Water Control Manual, among a host of other national initiatives.