This is the story of a river at a crossroads. Well, three rivers, actually: The Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, and Flint rivers form a giant, gushing wishbone of water that connects Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. For decades, this life-giving water has been the prize in a protracted battle over precious resources—the consequences of which recently put the waterway, also known as the ACF River Basin, at the top of this year’s list of America’s most endangered rivers. Now, a set of pending regulatory actions will decide the fate of the interconnected waterways and the people and wildlife that depend on them.
Will the water continue to flow for generations of farmers, suburban families, and Gulf of Mexico fishermen and women for decades to come? Can it nourish the plants and animals throughout the basin? Or will the faucet trickle to a stop in one state so it can gush in another?
To understand the waterway’s uncertain future, let’s first look to its past. Since the early 1990s, the three southern states through which the three rivers pass have been locked in a legal tug-of-war over who has the right to divert water, and how much. The millions of people who live nearest the rivers’ headwaters have tended to benefit most. Georgia, for example, has been helping itself to more and more water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers each year to satisfy the needs of farmers and the booming population of the metro Atlanta area, currently 5.7 million people. Those farther away in Alabama and Florida, where the Flint and Chattahoochee join to become the Apalachicola River, have had to make do with the resulting limited flow as it makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Slowly but surely, the ACF River Basin has been drying up. In 2012, Apalachicola Bay, the saltwater estuary at the mouth of the river and once home to a thriving, $5.8 billion fishing industry, suffered a collapse. The oyster beds were so depleted that the oyster boats sat idle, and crabs and shrimp were practically nonexistent—both in the bay and out in the gulf, says Apalachicola riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire.
Ben Emanuel, associate director of Clean Water Supply for American Rivers, an advocacy group that creates the endangered river list, says the rivers have deteriorated because of bad management and the increased demand for water. “But more broadly, they’re suffering from the ongoing state of conflict in the basin.”
The most recent legal standoff began in 2013, when Florida accused Georgia of capturing more water than it deserved, thereby wreaking environmental, economic, and even cultural harm on Apalachicola Bay. Florida demanded that its northern neighbor roll back the amount it takes from the Chattahoochee River to 1992 levels. A special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court has urged the combatants to come to an agreement through peaceful negotiation, or else face a third-party solution that may not appeal to either of them.
Private advocacy groups are also pressing for a truce between the states. “Our message is that the governors of Florida and Georgia need to get together outside of the court system and make a water-sharing agreement that’s sustainable and equitable,” Emanuel says.
While the legal battle rages in courtrooms, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the process of updating its Master Water Control Manual for the ACF River Basin for the first time in 40 years. The new regulations will guide the operation of five reservoirs along the Chattahoochee River—under normal, drought, and flood conditions—with the aim of meeting a variety of needs, including those supporting recreation, navigation, hydropower, water quality, agriculture, and fish and wildlife.
The Corps released a draft of the ACF River Basin water-control manual and an environmental impact statement in 2015 and is now in the process of responding to the thousands of comments collected during the public review period. A final version is expected in 2017.
A common complaint lobbed at the Corps is the perceived unfairness of keeping Atlanta’s Lake Lanier full for recreational purposes and drinking water while the flow of the Apalachicola River downstream is reduced to drought levels for long periods, starving its floodplain and the bay. Though the minimum-flow tactic has enabled endangered mussel and sturgeon species to survive, it has fallen far short of allowing Apalachicola Bay to thrive.
In fact, advocates say, the bay is steadily dying. “We will be a Colorado River if they don’t reverse this trend and try to recover this ecosystem,” Tonsmeire says, referring to the intensive damming and redirection of the once-powerful Colorado, whose waters now rarely reach the sea at the end of their 1,500-mile course.
One of the most frustrating things about the waterway’s decline is that a viable solution to its problems may already exist. The ACF Stakeholders, a grassroots organization representing 56 groups in the three states, has created a Sustainable Water Management Plan that takes as its basis the “golden rule” that one group of users need not suffer as the others flourish. This has been done before: After years of disputes among Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, the Delaware River Basin Commission created a joint management mechanism for water use during times of drought. The plan requires consensus by federal, state, and local agencies prior to any change—and it’s working.
Compromise, understanding, research, sharing, flexibility, and transparency are at the heart of such a plan. Is it too lofty a request to ask Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and the Corps of Engineers to manage the system for all rather than pitting constituents against one another? The recent scheduling of an October 31 trial date for the Florida versus Georgia dispute suggests, for now at least, that the fight will continue the old-fashioned way.
But Jason Ulseth, the Chattahoochee riverkeeper, remains hopeful. “The most endangered river designation is a call to action to urge the Corps of Engineers and the governors to really move forward and save this river system for future generations,” he says. “The best outcome is for the ACF to never be on this list again.”