The elephant that isn’t in the room

“[If] the states had put half of that effort into honest, good-faith negotiation, we could have resolved this a long time ago.”

Juliet Cohen

Executive Director

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper

The effort to which Ms.Cohen alludes, in the above quote from the Gainesville Times, is the detailed preparation by teams of lawyers representing Georgia and Florida in the long-simmering interstate “water war,” which has now reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

That trial officially began Oct. 31 with Florida presenting the plaintiff case that Georgia has done ecologic and economic harm to the former through overconsumption of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin. Specifically, Florida blames Georgia for low flows and oversalinization that Florida says devastated the Apalachicola Bay oyster industry in 2012 and afterward. Georgia responds that Florida’s own overharvesting and water mismanagement, combined with drought and other factors beyond human control, are behind the problems. Cohen thinks it might be some of both: “It was reduced flows from the river that allowed for higher (saltiness) in the bay,” she told the Times, “and it was increasing over-harvesting of the fishery. All that made for a perfect storm.”

As it’s being played out now in the early stages of this trial — in Portland, Me., though it will almost surely wind up in Washington — this is a dispute primarily involving two large bodies of water: Lake Lanier, which serves sprawling Atlanta, at one end and Apalachicola Bay, with its fisheries, at the other.

In between, of course, are literally millions of water stakeholders on the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers — Columbus being the single largest — anxiously watching all this to see how it plays out. Like Florida, we want enough water to get downriver to meet our needs. But our interest, like that of other communities in the basin, is in the water getting to us, not just past us.

The one thing the two states agree on — that the trial could be the endgame in this dispute — is one they might both be wrong about. Because there’s a central player that’s nowhere to be found in this. We’re not talking about Alabama, which, despite filing friend-of-the-court briefs on Florida’s side, is mostly sitting this one out.

It’s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is still in the process of updating decades-obsolete flow management charts. The Corps, Cohen said, is “this sort of unrepresented, unspoken factor … [water] has got to come down the river system starting at Buford [Lake Lanier] Dam. And that involves corps operations, which this court is not addressing at all.”

Buford is indeed just the start: Between there and the Gulf of Mexico are West Point, Walter F. George and George W. Andrews dams on the Chattahoochee, and Jim Woodruff Dam at the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint — all Corps of Engineers dams.

So even if this trial “resolves” the legal dispute between the two states, we might still be waiting for the Corps. Let’s hope we’re not still waiting for rain.