The Natural Georgia Series: The Chattahoochee River

Design by Lenz Design, Decatur, Georgia.

Lindsay ThomasWise Stewardship of the Chattahoochee is Key

by Lindsay Thomas

Make no doubt about it, the region that we live in today would not be what it is were it not for our water resources. Whether it is groundwater, surface water, annual rainfall, or the diverse aquatic ecosystem, how we manage these water resources will determine quality of life for future generations and us. Either we’re going to wisely manage, steward, and nurture this natural resource, or we’re going to squander it. The issue is at hand and it’s under our watch.

Currently Georgia, Alabama, and Florida are in negotiations concerning the surface waters these states share. Alabama and Georgia share the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) River Basin and Alabama, Georgia, and Florida share the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin. There is an interstate Compact for each basin that directs the states to develop an allocation formula for equitably apportioning the waters of the shared river basins while complying with existing federal laws such as the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Rivers and Harbors Act. As the Federal Commissioner appointed by President Clinton, I represent the federal agencies with mission-related interests in the ACT/ACF River Basins, which include the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Geological Service, the Southeastern Power Administration, the Department of Justice, and others. The federal agencies involved with this process have spent years of effort and millions of dollars supporting the states’ negotiations with information and technical expertise. I will cast the final concurrence / non-concurrence vote based on the federal agencies’ determination of the allocation formula’s compliance with federal law.

The negotiations are a highly complex process with many diverse stakeholders and competing interests. Sentiments from the grassroots of the basins are high now. People are concerned. They have been educated. It is my opinion that they will not go quietly away into the night ever again, and it is my belief that they should not. But it is also my belief that these same concerned people will go a long way in supporting a conscientious and balanced agreement, even if it comes in stages, with responsible commitment to follow through in implementation and by maintaining ongoing wise stewardship.

For a moment, assume the negotiations fail, what is to follow? It is a certainty that there will be a long and very arbitrary period of disputes and litigation, and during this period there will be literally a drift of all of the stewardship and responsible management of the natural resources. Or at best, without any direction, just the status quo will prevail. And what about a costly and protracted settlement handed down by a federal judge who has never seen these basins, much less swam in their waters, or fished in their rivers, and come to know the very important role they play in the culture of the lives of the people in these three states? If that becomes the eventuality, then let me make a prediction. A settlement handed down from a federal judge will be accompanied with the twenty-twenty accuracy of hindsight. That hindsight will tell us that we all would have been better off to have taken this opportunity to negotiate instead of receiving an ultimatum that ties all hands and leaves the rightful stewards of these resources helplessly walking the sidelines.

The answer has to come from wise stewardship, with rational and sensible utilization, and an assessment of needs and supplies. We’ve got to know where the water is. We’ve got to know where it’s going. And we’ve got to know who’s doing what to it. It must be approached on a basin-wide basis and it must be approached immediately. We’ve got to elevate this issue as high as any issue that we deal with in the quality of life spectrum. It is my fervent wish and desire that we seize this rare opportunity, we determine our own destiny, and we give the same opportunity to future generations of Georgians, and Floridians, and Alabamians.

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