By Deron Davis
Executive Director, The Nature Conservancy in Georgia
The war over the waters of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin formally began in 1990, the same year I graduated from the University of Georgia. The state of Alabama sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prevent the federal agency from finalizing a plan that would have allowed metro Atlanta to store water in five reservoirs, including Lake Lanier, for water supply.
The ACF system begins as the Chattahoochee River near Blairsville in the southern Appalachian Mountains. It flows through metropolitan Atlanta and forms the border between Georgia and Alabama in Columbus. Under the airport in Atlanta, the Flint River starts its journey, joining the Chattahoochee when it pours into Lake Seminole at the Georgia-Florida border. From there the Apalachicola River splits the central part of the Florida panhandle and flows into the Gulf of Mexico at Apalachicola Bay.
Along the way the river system provides water for drinking, electricity generation, industrial uses, agricultural irrigation, seafood production, transportation and recreation, and it supports an extraordinary level of biodiversity. Together with the upper part of the Apalachicola River, the Lower Flint River Basin is home to the greatest density of reptile and amphibian life in the United States.
After college, I went to work at a community nature center where I taught children about the Chattahoochee watershed. Then for the State, I helped guide the development of regional water plans that reconciled the vitality of the economy with the availability of Georgia’s water resources.
And through it all, the war waged on.
The most recent battle took a turn a few weeks ago when the special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that without the Army Corps involved, the court could not grant Florida the consumptive ban the state was seeking. The report acknowledged that Florida had suffered harm from decreased flows and noted that measures taken by Georgia to limit water use from the Flint River for agricultural irrigation were “remarkably ineffective.”
When the Supreme Court rules based on the special master’s findings, it will not be the end of this ongoing conflict. So far, Georgia, Alabama and Florida have not found an equitable path forward. It is time for Georgia to continue in a leadership role by acting on the work of the ACF Stakeholders, a group of 56 industry leaders, water and power utility representatives, farmers, environmental advocates and a host of others from the three states.
When I joined The Nature Conservancy, I was asked to represent the conservation community as a member of the ACF Stakeholders. At my first meeting, I was impressed by the high degree of organization and integrity that the members were bringing to such an audacious project. We were committed to a fair process informed by the best available data at every step. When divisive issues like the amount of freshwater flow needed in the Apalachicola Bay threatened to derail the dialogue, it was Atlanta’s own Brad Currey, well known for championing issues from the arts to higher education to conservation, who reminded the group it was up to us to do what no one had done before and to make tough choices for sustainable water management across the basin.
After six years, the group reached consensus on a set of key recommendations. The plan was shared with leaders in all three states in May 2015.
One recommendation by the ACF Stakeholders calls for the consistent collection of unbiased scientific data to inform water use decisions. Better understanding agricultural water use in the Flint River basin for example would be a great place for the State of Georgia to start. The plan also suggests that the U.S. Army Corps pull the lever on two large reservoir releases each year in May and July, timed to support the needs for freshwater downstream and out in the bay.
The Nature Conservancy maintains that the Stakeholders’ Sustainable Water Management Plan should be the guiding light for the critical decisions that need to be made about how to apportion water among various users in the ACF basin.
As a native Georgian who has committed my career to conserving Georgia’s natural resources, I am hopeful that the leaders of the three states traversed by this important river system can come together, like the ACF Stakeholders did, so that the people and wildlife in the region can thrive.