Advocates: Chattahoochee River basin is country's 'most endangered'

Time for Alabama, Florida, and Georgia to broker deal, urge more conservation

The decades-long political battle over how Georgia, Alabama, and Florida should share water from the river basin that includes the Chattahoochee River, along with excessive water use, is putting the vital waterway at risk of "endangerment," says a national advocacy group.

American Rivers Network says the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which runs from North Georgia to Alabama and Florida before pouring out in the Gulf of Mexico, is the country's most endangered waterway. The reason behind the dubious honor is a decades-long dispute over Georgia, Alabama, and Florida — and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages Lake Lanier's Buford Dam at the start of the river — over how water is shared and used.

Unless the states can come to a "transparent water-sharing agreement that protects both people and wildlife throughout the basin, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers improves water management," the advocates say, "the region will face lasting economic and irreversible environmental damage."

The group's annual report highlights what it considers to be the 10 most threatened waterways in the country and calls for conservation, efficiency, and better management of water resources. Rivers across the country are under stress and pressure as competition for water grows and the effects of climate change take shape.

The Chattahoochee, which has been the focus of intense environmental efforts by advocates such as the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, begins in North Georgia and connects with the Flint, which starts near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, near the Georgia-Florida border to become the Apalachicola. In addition to serving as a "lifeline" to industry, agriculture, and recreation, the advocates say 70 percent of metro Atlanta's population relies on the Chattahoochee and Flint as its primary source of drinking water.

The dispute can be traced back to the 1950s, when USACE built Lake Lanier for navigation, flood control, and hydropower. But Alabama and Florida in 1990 cried foul over Georgia's use of the reservoir as a source of drinking water. Lawsuits and legal battles funded by taxpayers raged for decades. In 2012, a federal judge said the USACE had the discretion to operate Lanier to meet Georgia's present and future demands for water. Just how much depends on the river's ability to make sure it can handle downstream needs and comply with federal law. But there's still no agreement.

American Rivers Network says the three governors should forego the legal maneuvering and follow recommendations made by stakeholders along the basin last year to create a transparent and "science-based" management plan along the basin. USACE should also "substantially improve" its water management to sustain ecosystems along the basin, especially along the Apalachicola. Finally, it adds, "water conservation and wiser, more efficient water use in all sectors throughout the basin can help bring sustainability to the river system."

"The states need to stop wasting money and time in the courts," says Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth. "The time is now for them to engage in a transparent negotiation which results in a fair and sustainable water sharing plan."