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Alabama threatens to sue in tri-state ‘water wars’ involving Georgia, Florida

LAKE LANIER -- Alabama, long just an interested party in a water-sharing legal dispute between Georgia and Florida, is suggesting it might pursue “further litigation” in a longstanding “water wars” between the three states.

A U.S. Supreme Court order on Jan. 3 urging Georgia and Florida to consider interbasin
transfers in settlement talks has Alabama worried that “interbasin” potentially could involve Alabama waters.

“The practical effect of … authorizing such transfer could prejudice Alabama, and Alabama would, as a result, become a necessary party to further litigation in this case,” Alabama lawyer John C. Neiman Jr. said in a Wednesday letter to Ralph Lancaster, a Maine lawyer tapped by the U.S. Supreme Court to preside over the latest legal battle.

Neiman cited Lancaster’s statement in the 1-page order that Georgia and Florida should
consider as part of an agreement the “importation of water” from outside the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which includes Lake Lanier, “to supplement streamflow during drought periods.”

“Neither Florida nor Georgia has requested the Court to enter an order or decree that would authorize either party to make interbasin transfers of that sort,” Neiman said in his 2-page letter. “The possibility mentioned in the Jan. 3 order could alter the nature of this action from Alabama’s perspective.”

Neiman said that previous court submissions by Alabama supporting Florida in the case “have not considered or discussed the effect that a decree authorizing interbasin transfers could have on Alabama.”

“If this case’s scope were expanded to include the possibility of a decree authorizing interbasin transfers from rivers flowing into Alabama,” Neiman said, “Alabama’s interests in the case would be different.”

From the start of Florida’s dispute with Georgia — which involved allegations of “overconsumption” of water in the ACF — Alabama “did not need to become a party to this case because Florida’s requested relief was limited to a cap on Georgia’s withdrawals from the ACF Basin, which would not prejudice Alabama.

“Alabama thus assumes that the Jan. 3 order contemplates only importation of water from
basins wholly within Georgia, such as the Oconee and Ocmulgee river basins, rather than from interstate river basins that flow into Alabama, such as the Coosa, Tallapoosa and Tennessee River Basins.”

Much of southeast Hall County is in the Oconee River Basin, which flows to the Atlantic Ocean. The ACF flows to the Gulf of Mexico.

In his order, Lancaster doesn’t elaborate on his point about the interbasin transfers.

Neiman asked that Alabama “first receive notice” of a decree “authorizing transfers from interstate river basins flowing into Alabama as a result of settlement discussions,” and that the state would “be given the opportunity to assert its interests in an appropriate way.”

The lawyer also said Alabama “is willing to participate in any negotiations between Florida and Georgia that address this issue.”

Lancaster’s order set a Jan. 24 deadline for Georgia and Florida to try to settle their differences. The states need to submit a confidential memorandum to him by Jan. 26 “setting forth a summary of the parties’ settlement efforts,” his order says.