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Water wars redux

The years change but the fight over the natural resource - and the cost to Georgians - stays the same

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I have been a lobbyist working on water issues at the Georgia General Assembly since the late 1980s, a period that coincides with the so-called tristate "Water Wars" between Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.

During that time, the three states have bickered in courts and in the press over how water should be shared from Lake Lanier, which flows from metro Atlanta down toward its western and southern neighbors.

For the last two years, a cease-fire appeared to be in effect. But last week, Florida announced that it planned to sue Georgia over how much water the state slurps from the Chattahoochee River before it flows through the Sunshine State and into the Gulf of Mexico. If Florida follows through with its threat, the war will resume.

This political project has been regarded as a "must win" by metro Atlanta and state leaders for about 25 years. Millions of dollars have been sunk into litigation and legislation plus research to support the ongoing "warfare."

Behind the public face of state and metro officials have loomed their financiers, such as the Atlanta-based electricity titan Southern Company, Georgia's largest water user that happens to own utilities in all three states. Not to mention phalanxes of real estate developers, paving contractors, and the others who make sprawl possible. But like any war, of course, the taxpayers have supplied the actual money to fund the combat.

Georgia's troops fighting in the Water Wars have proven remarkably durable over its duration. Many who "retired" from the engagement have reappeared as "consultants" and "experts." The amount of cash available, mostly taxpayer dollars, has assured their continued attention. In total, four governors' administrations have presided over this bipartisan melon cutting for the lawyers and other participants.

In 1990, then-Gov. Zell Miller installed former Commissioner of Natural Resources Joe D. Tanner back at his old post during the Water Wars' earliest engagements. Tanner was aided by state Environmental Protection Director Harold Reheis and his deputy David Word. They are now joined by another former EPD director, Allen Barnes, in a leading consulting and engineering firm headed by Tanner.

The state has also employed the McKenna Long & Aldridge law firm while the Atlanta Regional Commission has used King & Spalding, where Barnes was once a partner. According to the Associated Press, the legal bill to these two firms for their work over the years totals nearly $18 million.

Academics have been hired for years, cooking up studies and plans. Dr. Ron Cummings, a University of New Mexico economist, proposed a plan to buy southwest Georgia farmers' irrigation water to trade to Florida in return for more water withdrawals for ever-growing metro Atlanta. Informed and affected — hence outraged — citizens nixed the idea.

Any war requires a goal. The states in the Water Wars claim to want the resource to be shared in a fair manner. Real war goals are always less idealistic than the proclaimed aims. What metro Atlanta and Georgia appear to want is unlimited water access with economic and population growth. Since there's only a finite amount of water, the powers that be have projected a supposed volume that will be "needed" in the future.

That amount is far beyond what can be had without significant changes in Georgia water rights law. It's also based on both unrealistic economic and population projections and unsubstantiated guesses at the state's future water demand.

Metro Atlanta and Georgia leaders want their opponents — Alabama and Florida — to accept these projections. Because that's unlikely to happen, the battle can be prolonged indefinitely to the financial benefit of anyone clever enough to cook up any idea that might give one side or another "an edge." Officials will proclaim such moments as "victories," however hollow, to the taxpaying public.

Sun Tzu once said that "all warfare is based on deception." And throughout the Water Wars, negotiations were conducted in secret. Many interests are at stake in water allocation decisions; many of these conflict with one another. Exposure of those interests, in some cases, could have severe consequences. And secrecy in the negotiations among the states assures that the perpetual dispute will continue.

There have been scapegoats, such as the federally designated "endangered species" that live in the Apalachicola River, and which are required by federal law to be provided proper water supply to ensure their survival. While some olive branches — such as true conservation measures, which could steward the resource — have been extended, serious efforts have not taken place.

There were hints over the years that the three sides would resolve the issue. In 1997, the three states' legislatures signed the "Interstate Compacts," a set of agreements that Congress later passed to govern the sharing of the water resources. Unlike other states' water-sharing laws, these did not specifically say how water resources would be split. That was left to be decided later.

It never was. But the lawyers and others kept billing for their work until the compacts expired in 2003. Since the collapse of the compacts during Gov. Sonny Perdue's administration, a string of underlying zombie lawsuits over water use and storage all came back to life.

Georgia seemed to lose big in 2009 when a federal judge ruled that more than 3 million metro Atlantans would lose access to Lake Lanier as a source of drinking water, should the three states not hammer out an agreement once and for all. Then, when an appeals court tossed out that ruling, Georgia seemed to win big.

Now Florida says it's suing again, over water that it says is not reaching Apalachicola Bay. The lawyers are surely giddy. The people, "led" by the secrecy addicts they have elected, will continue to pay the bills and get nothing.

As an enlistee in the forces of the latter, I can report that all of this is deadly damned familiar.

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