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Water wars drama shelves bipartisan weather bill on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON -- There was plenty of water wars drama to go around on Capitol Hill last week. It just so happens that the public showdown we saw between Georgia and its two neighbors, Alabama and Florida -- which resulted in the Peach State's favored outcome -- wasn't the half of it.

It turns out that Georgia lawmakers were also quietly fighting on another front last week, this time on an otherwise non-controversial weather forecasting bill.

The news was first reported by The Washington Post: 

On Thursday afternoon, a bipartisan weather bill years in the making quietly died on the floor of the House of Representatives. Supporters of the bill say it was necessary to maintain U.S. excellence in research and forecasting and the National Weather Service’s ability to issue lifesaving warnings. It also would have bridged federal agencies and private companies in a discipline where advances are being made across all sectors. 


 The Weather Research and Forecasting Act of 2015 — which had Democrat, Republican, bicameral and weather enterprise support — passed the Senate by unanimous consent on Dec. 2 but was left withering on the vine in the House, ostensibly because of a decades-old water dispute in the South.

The section of the bill that angered the Georgia delegation is seemingly benign on its surface, directing the National Water Center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to conduct a new study that includes "recommendations to improve engineering, design, operations, and management of civil works projects."

But Georgia lawmakers point to the subsection that asks the center to report on "any project in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River System," the body of water at the center of Georgia's decadeslong fight with its neighbors. They say it's another attempt to tip the scales in the water wars, which is currently being litigated in court.

"It gives preference to environmental issues over water usage issues by people," said U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville. "This type of language has proven to be damaging in our court case in the past."

The Post attributes the language to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who added it after the House first passed the bill in May 2015. No one seemed to notice it until it reached the House floor again last week for a final vote.

Loudermilk said the Atlanta Regional Commission tipped the Georgia delegation off about the language, and the state's congressmen quickly pumped the brakes. House leaders stripped Nelson's provision out of the measure at Georgia's request, but Democrats indicated they would block a final attempt to pass it by unanimous consent. An eleventh-hour attempt by the House Science Committee, of which Loudermilk is a member, to broker a compromise was unsuccessful, since most lawmakers had already left town for the year.

Georgia lawmakers this week framed Nelson's language as the state's water opponents trying to pull a fast one in the dark of night.

“If folks want to talk about water issues, I’m happy to do it – in fact, we just passed water resources legislation that’s now headed to the President’s desk – but inserting unrelated language into a weather research and forecasting bill isn’t the way to go about it," said U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, the delegation's point man on water issues.

Nelson's spokesman told the Post it was all above board.

“It’s disingenuous to say this was bad faith,” said Bryan Gulley, a spokesman for Nelson, who pointed out that it was approved by the two Georgia senators via unanimous consent on Dec. 2. The amendment “was there since the beginning. This was not some sneak attack in the dark of night. It was nothing of that sort.”

Last week's maneuvering likely means the weather forecasting bill will be shelved until the new year. As for additional congressional battles over the water wars? We're assuming those will return as well.

Read more of the AJC’s water wars coverage:


Metro Atlanta’s water fate hangs in the balance

A new water wars front bubbles up on Capitol Hill

Why the water wars battle matters to Georgia

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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.