SCOTUS Ruling Makes Clear That Alabama Must Develop a Water Plan

SCOTUS Ruling Makes Clear That Alabama Must Develop a Water Plan

By Cindy Lowry, executive director, Alabama Rivers Alliance

Click here to read this op-ed published on on April 7, 2021.

Last week, on April 2, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Florida did not make the case that Georgia’s water use has harmed the Apalachicola River and Bay. This ruling has far-reaching ramifications for downstream water users in interstate waterways across the country, especially in Alabama.  Without a comprehensive statewide water plan and common-sense water management in place, Alabama lags behind both Florida and Georgia. Alabama’s lackadaisical approach to water resource management continues to leave us vulnerable to Georgia’s future claims on water.

The Supreme Court ruling states that Florida failed to prove that damage to its oyster industry and the environment were Georgia’s fault.  More importantly for Alabama, the Court sided with Georgia when it argued that Florida “mismanag[ed]” its resources (specifically the oysters), stating “Florida allowed unprecedented levels of oyster harvesting in the years leading to the collapse.”  While the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case focused on the ACF river system, which only borders Alabama for a part of our Southeastern border with Georgia, it certainly doesn’t bode well for Alabama’s interest in water flowing from Georgia in the Alabama Coosa Tallapoosa (ACT) basin.  Alabama depends on both the ACF and the ACT basins for drinking water, irrigation, manufacturing, electricity, seafood, biodiversity, and many other needs.  In the ACT basin alone, dozens of aquatic species have already been lost, and dozens more are currently threatened with extinction.

The message Alabama leaders should glean from this Supreme Court ruling is that when there is a fight over water, the Supreme Court will look to whether each state is managing its own resources responsibly, i.e. whether each state has its own house in order.  As of now, Alabama stands to lose that fight.  We need water management policies now for all of Alabama’s rivers, streams, and aquifers, including the ACF and ACT basins.

Alabama must re-engage stakeholders in the effort to develop a comprehensive water management plan.  A diverse group of interests in the ACF basin developed a Sustainable Water Management Plan in 2015, which was the result of a multi-year effort backed by millions of dollars of investment in research and conflict resolution.  Our state leaders can still adopt this plan and use similar principles to govern other interstate river conflicts that will inevitably arise.  Meanwhile, Alabama should prioritize water management within our borders to protect against future over-use and safeguard resources against droughts and other challenges.  A water management plan which includes better oversight and regulation of water use will ensure that all can get an equitable piece of the pie while keeping enough clean water flowing in the system to keep it healthy.

As we enter the fourth decade of lawsuits in the long-running tri-state water wars between Alabama, Georgia and Florida, this ruling will not be the last one we will see and certainly does not solve the long-term problem of equitably managing water resources.  April 13th is Rivers of Alabama Day, a day designated by the state legislature to celebrate Alabama’s amazing 132,000 miles of rivers and streams. This year on Rivers of Alabama Day, please ask your state legislators and Governor Ivey to stop wasting precious time and start protecting rivers and create a water management plan before it’s too late!