Cobb County, Ga., is violating its water permit and creating expensive problems for Alabamians who live downstream along the Coosa, said Matt Lembke, who represents Alabama in the long-running water dispute among Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
“It's beyond dispute that the Atlanta area has no right to take the amount of water they're taking,” Lembke told the members of the Alabama Water Resources Commission at their regular meeting in Montgomery on Thursday.
Alabama, Georgia and Florida have been embroiled for 25 years in disputes over the use of water from rivers the states share.
The Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint rivers drain from a basin that includes parts of Alabama and Georgia and empty into the Gulf of Mexico on the Florida coast. The Alabama, Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers in Alabama are fed by headwaters in Georgia. Atlanta's use of water from both river basins to support the city's growing population has spawned lengthy legal disputes among the three states.
Long dormant, those disputes have kicked up again in the last month. Florida filed suit with the U.S. Supreme Court in October, claiming Georgia was causing lower water levels that hurt the oyster industry in Apalachicola.
Alabama was mostly defeated in a court case against Georgia two years ago, though Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions pushed a bill in October that would have required congressional approval for any major changes in Georgia’s water use in the two basins. Congress rejected that wording, but is considering wording that would urge the three states to reach a resolution.
Lembke said Sessions' bill was still useful to Alabama, because it sparked Senate hearings on Georgia's water use. Lembke said Thursday that the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged in those hearings that it allowed Cobb County, an Atlanta suburb, to draw more than its allowed amount of water from Lake Allatoona, which is upstream of the Coosa.
"It's been as high as 361 percent of the authorized amount," Lembke said. Cobb County has drawn more water than it’s allowed for several years in a row, he said.
He said that in times when the water is low, such as the 2007 drought, that drawdown has cost Alabama money by requiring industrial uses and water authorities to adapt to the low water levels.
News accounts from the hearing show corps officials confirming that there have been excessive drawdowns by Cobb County in the past. Those officials also said Cobb County is now in compliance.
Cobb County Water Authority general manager Glenn Page, in a telephone interview after the meeting, disputed most of Lembke’s claims. The county did exceed its authorized amount of water from Allatoona in a couple of drought years, he said, but didn’t draw more than the allowed amount of water in most years.
Page said the water authority was allowed to take just less than 5 percent of the volume of the lake, which adds up to about 34.5 million gallons per day at an average water level. Page said Alabama interpreted any draw of more than 34.5 million gallons per day as too much, no matter how much water was actually in the lake.
Lembke said the Corps of Engineers is considering a new water use plan for the basin that would let Georgia keep more water in Lake Allatoona in fall and early winter, typically the driest parts of the year.
At present, the corps draws the water level in the late down about 17 feet between Oct. 1 and the end of the year. The proposed new plan would draw down about 5 feet in September, then keep the lake level until mid-October before dropping another 12 feet.
Lembke said the drop will lead to lower levels in the Coosa during the driest season of the year — something Alabama opposes. He said the change was being made to preserve recreational uses of the lake. There’s less need for water-skiing and other recreational uses that late in the year.
Page, however, said the slower drawdown would help with flood control, and would make it easier to respond to a particularly dry winter. He said that if the lake dropped below a certain minimum — the “winter pool” — it might not be ready for boating when it’s warmer.
“If it drops below the winter pool it cannot fill up for spring,” he said.
At the meeting, Water Resources Commission member H.E. “Sonny” Cauthen asked if the state would join in a suit against Georgia because of the Cobb County situation.
“If the abuse is so flagrant, why wouldn’t Alabama join that suit?” he asked.
Lembke said he couldn’t comment, citing attorney-client privilege. Gov. Robert Bentley said earlier in the month that the state wouldn’t join in the Florida suit. Bentley spokesman Jeremy King said Thursday that governor was urging the Corps of Engineers to re-think its proposed water use plan.
“Alabama believes that upstream communities in Georgia are taking more water than they are legally entitled to consume,” King said in an email. “Alabama's desire is to maintain the historical flow of water across the state line, especially during the driest parts of the year.”
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.