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Ga. Congressman’s caucus could influence Lake Lanier water war

June 29, 2013

by Annette Birch

A new congressional caucus could influence the water dispute between Georgia, Alabama and Florida, which for years have been fighting over the use and distribution of water from Lake Lanier. The caucus, created by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Gainesville) on April 1, will focus on lake levels, water supply and reform of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the organization that manages the lake.

“The plan is to approach from a broad point-of-view on how we can speed up what has been a very lengthy and frustrating experience updating management plans,” Rep. Collins said in an email. He emphasized that while it was not the intent of the caucus to specifically solve the tri-state water dispute, the caucus would look into national issues similar to those at Lake Lanier, where the disagreements over water distribution and the Corps’ management using outdated regulations and procedures have created conflict and criticism.

Joan Cloud, executive director of the non-profit Lake Lanier Association, agreed that a congressional caucus could start a dialogue with the Corps which has been lacking. The caucus could also put pressure on the Corps to review its 50-year-old manual which regulates the distribution, storage and use of water for Lanier. The Corps does not expect the manual to be updated before 2015.

For now, the water supply in Lake Lanier is so abundant that there is plenty of water for Georgia, Alabama and Florida, which all depend on water from the lake for their water supply. However, before 2011 where a court decision gave Georgia the right to a larger portion of the lake’s water supply, the three states were engaged in legal battles over who had a right to water from the lake. Jason Ulseth, technical program director at the Tri-state Conservation Coalition indicated that those days could come again. If the Corps in the present times of plenty does not store enough water in the reservoirs, there will not be enough left to satisfy the needs of all three states in times of extreme drought – which has happened twice in Georgia over the past several years.

“When water gets scarce, then they compete against each other,” Ulseth said. Without federal regulation or a formal agreement, the legal battles could break out again if the three states do not agree with the Corps’ distribution of water supplies.

Rep. Collins expects the three states to reach an agreement on the tri-state water dispute. Instead he will use his caucus to weigh in on the revision of the Water Resources Development Act, which regulates the Corps’ management of lakes all over the country including Lake Lanier. He does not expect the revision of the bill to alter the current authorizations related to Lake Lanier.

“I expect that the Water Resources Development Act will be a good opportunity for members of the caucus to discuss their individual concerns to move towards improving the operations of the Corps,” Rep. Collins said in an email.

The bill, which was adopted by a bipartisan vote in the Senate Committee on March 20, includes reforms to enhance and streamline projects by giving the Corps more authority to operate. For Lake Lanier, the bill could mean that the Corps would be able to complete the environmental review process, which is needed for revising the manual, faster.

However, the bill still has to be adopted by the entire Senate and passed by the House to become law.

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