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Kempner: Are we the jerk neighbor in the water wars?

It would be nice to believe that Georgia’s 27-year-long water war with Florida and Alabama is over. 

We won a crucial round. 

But we came out of it looking like jerks, or at least that’s the way it seems from the writings of the man handing us the victory. 

That’s just part of the reason I’m having a hard time accepting that the issues behind Georgia’s nearly three decades of hand-wringing over water supplies are over. Or that the risk of water war-induced economic apocalypse for metro Atlanta is gone. 

report released Tuesday from a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court recommends the court deny Florida’s plea for help (which was really a plea to cut Georgia’s water consumption to 1992 levels, when we were a far smaller place). 


So it will likely raise expectations that we can continue to grow for years without draconian limits on how much water we pull out of rivers for really important things like drinking, farming, keeping manufacturing humming and maybe even watering the grass. 

But Ralph Lancaster, the special master in this case, also concluded things that we’d rather not hear. 

Florida said our water-sucking ways upstream devastated the downstream oyster harvests in Apalachicola Bay by reducing fresh water flows and making the bay’s water too salty. We (Georgia) argued that Florida’s over harvesting was the real bad guy. 

But the special master said the evidence presented “tends to show that increased salinity rather than harvesting pressure led to the collapse.” 

“The oyster collapse has greatly harmed the oystermen of the Apalachicola Region, threatening their long-term sustainability.” 

There’s no reason for Georgia to break out in a victory dance over that. 

Then the special master wrote this: “It also appears that Georgia’s upstream agricultural water use has been – and continues to be – largely unrestrained.” 

The number of acres Georgia farmers have under irrigation has soared from 75,000 acres in 1970 to more than 825,000. 

“In the face of this sharp increase in water use, Georgia has taken few measures to limit consumptive water use for agricultural irrigation. Agricultural permits contain no limitations on the amount of irrigation water that can be used by farmers…. Even the exceedingly modest measures Georgia has taken have proven remarkably ineffective.” 

“Georgia’s position – practically, politically, and legally – can be summarized as follows: Georgia’s agricultural water use should be subject 

to no limitations, regardless of the long-term consequences for the Basin.”

Lancaster called out our “unreasonableness” on water use for agriculture specifically.

 I’m not feeling like a good neighbor after reading all that. 

But the special master recommended against Florida because he concluded that even if Georgia’s water consumption was capped, the U.S. Corps of Engineers would likely continue to operate dams on the rivers in a way that wouldn’t result in much of the benefits reaching Florida. 

Florida sued Georgia in this case, not the Corps. 

I’m guessing that most of us in Atlanta never worried that much about the risk of living in a severely water-constrained future. The idea seemed distant and far-fetched. Except maybe during an awful drought when we were confronted with the concept that washing the car and keeping the lawn green were not unimpeachable rights bestowed by the U.S. Constitution and God, even on an odd-even watering schedule. 

Behind the scenes, the water war and water scarcity had impacts. 

Back in the day, Georgia officials were wary of trying to recruit to metro Atlanta industries that were big water users. Government planners fretted over how to ensure sufficient water for decades ahead. And we spent tens of millions of dollars keeping lawyers and consultants employed to fight the interstate litigation. So did Florida. Our downstream neighbor expected to shell out as much as $41 million on the litigation this year alone, according to news reports.  

The fight lingered forever. 

I remember when I called a long-time water advisor about an announcement that the three states would settle their water differences by February 15. 

“What year?” he asked. 

He was right to be skeptical. That was nearly a decade ago. 

The settlement never materialized. Instead the states wallowed in bad blood and jealousy and worry about our future versus theirs. 

Some good came with the bad. In metro Atlanta we really did get more thoughtful about water use and how to handle a precious natural resource.

In fact, Lancaster wrote that the state “appears to have taken significant steps to conserve water in the Atlanta metropolitan region -- though only after having been spurred to take such steps by adverse litigation results.”

When real money is at stake, we can rouse ourselves to act. 

But even if the U.S. Supreme Court holds in Georgia’s favor and other lawsuits or congressional action or Corp changes don’t get in our way, it’s a mistake to think we’re done with our long walk in the desert. 

Because all these years, we’ve had more than a litigation problem; we have a geographic one. 

Metro Atlanta is in the wrong place. We’re too far upstream. 

We often get lots of rain. But we rely on scrawny, undersized rivers (and the reservoirs along them) to satisfy our thirst. 

Remember that when we are in the next deep, extended drought. We might win the water war with our neighbors, but we haven’t won our war with water.

Other recent  Kempner columns

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