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Marco Rubio joins revived water battle against Georgia on Capitol Hill

Former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio is wading into the newest round of water wars drama that recently resurfaced on Capitol Hill.

The Florida senator took to the Senate floor Thursday evening to blast the way water is managed in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) river basins. Florida and Alabama have long alleged that Georgia takes out too much water for metro Atlanta at the expense of its neighbors, particularly harming the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay in Florida.

“The bottom line is that the status quo is only working for one state,” he said.

Rubio teamed up with his Florida colleague Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Alabama’s two GOP senators to push for a vote on an amendment to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spending bill that’s currently being considered on the Senate floor. It would require the governors of Georgia, Florida and Alabama to agree on water allocations in the two basins before the Army Corps can formally do so. The provision would cut off funds for the Army Corps to carry out the reallocation until the states come up with a deal.

“Absent such an agreement between governors, water continues to be withheld and the situation has now become dire in my home state of Florida,” Rubio said.

How much water Georgia can withdraw from Lake Lanier to meet its growth needs has been the subject of a long legal battle between Alabama, Florida and Georgia. (AJC/Bob Andres)

This isn’t the first time Rubio has dipped his toe in the water wars, which have played out for the last two decades. That’s had political consequences in Georgia – Gov. Nathan Deal did not include the first-term senator on his list of Republican candidates he’d be willing to support and spoke out against Rubio’s stance on the issue.

Deal’s office declined to comment on the latest round of fights on Capitol Hill, but the governor did meet quietly with his Florida and Alabama counterparts last year to try and hash out the water dispute in person. Meanwhile, the battle continues to be fought in the courts.

Rubio's speech came the same day another water wars-related provision appeared in the text of a document accompanying a second government spending bill written by Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby.

Torrie Matous, Shelby’s spokeswoman, said the provision “simply ensures transparency and disclosure of federal water storage contract violations in multi-state river basins.”

“Any water authority in compliance with the terms of its storage contract should not be concerned about the disclosure of this information. For those that are violating their contracts, Senator Shelby believes that the American people have a right and need to know,” she said, adding that the data is already available through the Freedom of Information Act.

Georgia’s senators yesterday vowed to fight the Shelby language at every turn.

The drama could play out on the Senate floor as soon as next week. Whether the water wars amendment will come up for a vote is ultimately up to the discretion of Senate leaders.

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.