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Water wars feud resurfaces on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON -- It looks like it could be a repeat year for Georgia’s congressional delegation, which fought a prolonged battle in 2015 to beat back legislative language related to the Peach State’s long-running water wars with Alabama and Florida.

Tucked deep within the pages of a document accompanying a spending bill for the U.S. Department of Justice is language that touches on Georgia’s decades-long water feud with its two neighbors.

The provision requests a report from the Justice Department on “all federal water contract violations in multi-state water basins since 2005,” and also calls for several related assessments.

It’s very similar to language inserted into a different government spending bill last year by Alabama GOP Sen. Richard Shelby that Georgia lawmakers said tipped the balance of power in the water feud. They fought tooth-and-nail to remove it and eventually notched an eleventh-hour victory.

The Senate subcommittee that wrote the Justice Department spending bill is chaired by Shelby, who is seeking a sixth term in office this year. A Shelby spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The language is all but assured to generate another bloody turf battle on Capitol Hill as the spending measure winds its way to the Senate floor.

"Senator Isakson has informed Senate leaders that this language is unacceptable, and he is committed to fighting it every step of the way," said Amanda Maddox, Johnny Isakson's spokeswoman.

Georgia, Alabama and Florida have sparred for decades over how much water the Peach State can squeeze from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) basins before the rivers flow downstream into Alabama and Florida. The dispute continues to play out in the courts, but lawmakers have dipped their toes into the feud on occasion.

Megan Whittemore, a spokeswoman for David Perdue, said "Congress has already spoken on this matter."

"The Georgia Delegation has made it clear that Congress should avoid interfering in these efforts through the appropriations process," she said.

In a letter to Senate leaders last month, Perdue and Isakson said they would withhold support for any spending bill that includes language impacting the water wars.

"Although we remain firm in our belief that this issue has been settled, please consider this letter our formal notice that there is no circumstance in which we would vote (to end debate or pass) an appropriations bill if it includes any language regarding the ACF and the ACT river basins or if it directs the Corps to make any changes to its existing policy affecting water rights for any state," the pair wrote.

Gov. Nathan Deal this month transferred another $11 million from his emergency fund to float the costs of the litigation. All told, the state has so far spent more than $20 million on lawyers on the fight– on top of $20 million previously spent over the last 25 years. And on Thursday the head of the state's environmental protection division, Jud Turner, resigned to focus full-time on Georgia's legal defense.

Shelby last week said he thinks the water dispute will ultimately be settled in the courts.

“It’s been going on for 20-some years. It ain’t going away,” he said.

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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.