ATLANTA - Georgia legislators thwarted on Wednesday an attempt by Alabama and Florida to limit how much water metro Atlanta and North Georgia can take from federal reservoirs.
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 restriction would have undercut an appellate court decision 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.
Instead of restricting water use, the bill now urges the governors of the three states to negotiate a resolution. The legislation states that Congress may take further action if the dispute remains unresolved, a nonbinding reference that Georgia officials want to defeat.
Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, both Republicans, praised the bill in a statement for allowing a harbor-deepening project in Savannah to proceed, only vaguely referencing the water dispute.
"While I remain concerned with other provisions in the bill, it is my hope that these can be remedied as the legislative process moves forward," Chambliss said.
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.
That restriction was probably intended to pressure Georgia into bargaining more intensely in the tri-state dispute. Since Georgia won in the appellate court, its leaders have faced less pressure to cut a deal.
"This complex issue is best resolved through reasonable negotiations among the Governors of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, and this provision helps moves those discussions forward," Sessions said in a statement.
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.
The conflict may 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 not to support any rules "that could be viewed as taking sides in this interstate dispute," the letter said.