The Tri-State River Basins, the river networks that reach throughout Alabama, Georgia and Florida, are ranked fifth among rivers facing serious environmental degradation this year, according to the environmental organization American Rivers. The two areas at risk are the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin and the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, both already the source of considerable conflict. The three states continue at a standoff in their ongoing battle over how to share their mutual water resources, and facing a May 1 deadline to develop a plan that will meet water demands while complying with environmental regulations.
"The natural heritage of the Southeast hangs in the balance as these three states battle over water," says Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers. "The governors of the three states must deliver a plan that meets reasonable human needs and protects water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and the recreation opportunities that the region enjoys." The solution must address issues like overconsumption, warns Wodder, or else "citizens will be stuck with increasingly expensive water treatment."
In addition to American Rivers, an April report from the National Wildlife Federation says Georgia, one of 21 states to receive a grade of "failing" in the NWF's survey, is shirking compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. The act targets two major types of water pollution: so-called "point" and "nonpoint" source pollution. Point source pollution is emitted from a definable, isolated entity, such as a factory. Nonpoint source pollution, which comes from agricultural runoffs, soil erosion and the like is seldom traceable and difficult to regulate.
The Clean Water Act includes a regulatory mechanism intended to stymie diffuse pollutants: the Total Maximum Daily Load watershed restoration plan. According to the act, a body of water has a TMDL which represents the maximum amount of pollution that water can handle. States are supposed to determine the TMDLs of their waters, then clean up those waters by forcing all polluters to reduce their emissions within the allowable pollution cap.
The Federation report shows that although Georgia has 921 "impaired" waters, it has developed TMDL plans for only 116 of those waters. And of those 116 plans, 114 were instigated only after court orders forced the state to start the cleanup.
"They have just not done very much," says Federation Center Director Andrew Schock. "The Clean Water Act has been out there for 30-plus years, but we still don't know how our water's doing because we don't have enough data."
Despite several false starts toward water protection, says Schock, "the state has not established it as a priority, because it's not really a sexy thing to spend money to figure out how polluted the water is."
In Georgia, nonpoint source pollutants are increasingly threatening fragile water supplies and the ecosystems they support. Agribusiness runoff is the primary source for nonpoint source pollution. The typical poultry house produces 225 tons of manure a year. That manure is rich in nitrogen and phosphorous, nutrients which cause algae blooms when leached into water, killing fish by reducing oxygen levels. In urban areas, lawn runoffs, air pollution and waste take their own tolls on water quality.
Pollution woes have long been exemplified by the plight of the Chattahoochee River. The Hooch was ranked seventh on a list of the nation's most endangered rivers in 1998, and its condition has not improved substantially since then. Continued growth in Atlanta subjects the river to toxins and periodic sewage overflows. High silt levels in the river make it an inimical environment for fish, whose gills are easily clogged.
The primary pollutant in the Chattahoochee is fecal coliform bacteria. The river also contains levels of herbicides and insecticides high enough to threaten its aquatic life. South of Atlanta, people eat fish out of the Chattahoochee at their own risk, as they are often loaded with chlordane and PCBs. The segment of river between Atlanta and West Point Lake has been labeled by the EPA as one of the five most toxic stretches of river in the nation.
In 1995, the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper took the City of Atlanta to court, where a federal judge found the city in violation of the Clean Water Act. In 1996, Judge Marvin Shoob ordered the EPA and the State of Georgia to clean the Chattahoochee by June 1997. His orders have as yet gone largely unfulfilled.
Even the mighty Chattahoochee's problems are really just a drop in the bucket. The endangered ACT/ACF river basins, which include the Chattahoochee, cover 40,000 square miles and provide drinking water and hydroelectric power for over five million people. The rivers in these areas are polluted, diverted and overdrawn. To make matters worse, their users can't even agree on a water management plan to ensure fair water access.
Ten years ago, Alabama filed a lawsuit trying to secure its rights to water. The suit was postponed in 1992 in favor of a negotiated settlement among the states. The deadline for a result has been pushed back for years. Meanwhile, Georgia consumers have anted up about $25 million in costs as the talks drag on. If negotiators don't reach a solution, the three states will litigate at staggering costs and years of delay. Rep. Bob Barr has said that if the case ends up in court, the "economic loss to Georgia could be in the billions of dollars."
Prepare to empty your wallets: litigation may be inevitable. Alabama's Gov. Don Siegelman said this year of Georgia's negotiators: "We'll see them in court," and his negotiators accused Georgia's team of unreasonable demands for water.
At the same time, Georgia's negotiators worry that Alabama's requests for minimum flows will jeopardize Lake Lanier and hurt the growth and prosperity of metro Atlanta and north Georgia.
Harry West, the former director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, warned chief Georgia negotiator Bob Kerr, the state's director of pollution prevention assistance, that Alabama's plans would mean "perpetual drought" for Atlanta as Lake Lanier becomes drained and unable to supply the metro area.
West isn't alone in his disgruntlement. Jim Campbell, Alabama's chief negotiator, has said Georgia's approach resembles, "We'll take all the water we want, and if there's anything left, you can have it."
Meanwhile, the rivers of the Southeast are held hostage in a regional squabble for drinking rights. Some are worried that negotiations have lost sight of critical ecological concerns. The worry is that parties involved are prioritizing their own growth opportunities over ecological sustainability.
"We do not see the wisdom in sacrificing the future viability of these rivers, and all they support, simply to perpetuate rampant urbanization and short-term economic gain," says Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Program Manager Matt Kales. "We are convinced that there exists ways in which the basin can be managed for both human and biological purposes."