The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given its approval to a new plan for the operation of the dams on the Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola rivers, saying the plan will not harm endangered species.
The decision by the federal agency comes less than a month before an Oct. 31 hearing on a lawsuit against Georgia by Florida over the use of water in the Chattahoochee and Flint.
The U.S. Supreme Court has appointed a “special master” who will oversee the case, and will then make a recommendation the high court.
In the suit, filed in 2013, Florida claims that Georgia is using an unfair share of the water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin, including water from Lake Lanier. The suit also alleges overuse of the Chattahoochee in metro Atlanta, and water from the Flint that is used by South Georgia farmers.
Though the “tri-state water wars” between Georgia, Florida and Alabama have been going on for decades, the suit was the first time one state directly sued another, according to The Wall Street Journal.
In the meantime, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working to update its water control manual for the basin. The manual regulates how the many Corps dams on the rivers will be operated, which affects the flows in the river and the levels of the lakes in the basin, include Lake Lanier and West Point Lake.
The fight between the three states has delayed updating the manual.
“It was important to update the manual because the current manual the Corps was using was decades old,” said Jason Ulseth, an advocate with the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper organization.
The manual needs to reflect modern science and current conditions as well as the potential environmental impact, he said.
For Florida, the issue is the amount of fresh water from the Apalachicola – which is formed when the Chattahoochee and Flint come together in Lake Seminole – that goes into Apalachicola Bay. Adequate freshwater is needed for the health of the oysters in the bay.
The Endangered Species Act is also involved because water flows can affect the health of the endangered Gulf Sturgeon, as well as three endangered mussels: the fat threeridge, purple bankclimber, and Chipola slabshell.
The Corps put out a draft manual last fall with several options for operating the dams. The Corps indicated one was the preferred alternative.
Public comment on the manual was received last fall, and the Corps made some changes.
Environmental groups worry that Fish and Wildlife focused mainly on the Corps’ preferred alternative rather than weighing all the alternatives equally.
“We don’t know what the Fish and Wildlife Service has given a thumbs up to,” Ulseth said. “The Corps may have done some great things in the alternative or they may have done some horrible things. We just don’t know.”
The information hasn’t been released to the public.
Though the Corps’ manual will decide how the dams on the river are operated and what water flows are maintained, Ulseth said that the lawsuit likely won’t affect the Corps’ policies.
The special master has said that “he’s going to let the Corps do their thing, and he’s going to do his thing. He doesn’t think he has the regulatory authority to tell the Corps what to do,” Ulseth said. But he could rule on other things, such as putting caps on water use in metro Atlanta.
“This fall is going to be a fascinating and very important juncture for this whole river basin, as both of these things are happening for the first time in decades,” Ulseth said.
Though Coweta sits along the Chattahoochee, no local water systems pull from the river. Newnan Utilities, the Coweta Water and Sewerage Authority, and Senoia withdraw water from local creeks, and a significant portion of drinking water for the authority is purchased from the city of Griffin.
Treated wastewater from Newnan Utilities, however, does eventually flow into the Chattahoochee.