Johnny Isakson's Statement on Georgia's Water Crisis

Johnny is working every day with fellow members of the Georgia delegation to address the water crisis facing the state of Georgia, and he is very grateful for the sacrifices that millions of Georgians are making to comply with water restrictions that are in place across the state.

Click here to view a list of statewide water restrictions across Georgia.

What caused this crisis?
Georgia’s water crisis has been caused by a severe drought, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s management of river basins based on outdated science and population figures and by the so-called water wars among Georgia, Alabama and Florida that have been ongoing for some 17 years.

Georgia is currently experiencing severe drought conditions that have resulted in historically low lake levels in the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) and Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basins, which lie in the states of Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Georgia has implemented statewide watering bans and restrictions to conserve water. The next round of restrictions would be placed on commercial water use.

Since 1987, Georgia, Florida and Alabama have been involved in negotiations over a tri-state water compact to determine apportionment and usage of water in the ACT and ACF river basins. The failure to create a tri-state water compact has resulted in the negotiations process breaking down into litigation in federal court. Most recently, a court ordered mediator determined that the three states were at an impasse and that further mediation would not help.

A critical part of the process also involves updating of the water control manuals, which are the data the Corps uses to manage water releases from the river basins. Currently, the data being used is 20 years old, and does not reflect today’s realities of population and usage in the basins.

The Corps also is concerned with meeting its obligations under the Endangered Species Act. Specifically, the Corps is managing releases out of Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona in a manner that is in the best interest of endangered sturgeon in Florida and endangered mussels in Alabama, instead of in the best interests of the people of Georgia who rely on this water for drinking purposes. The Corps releases are designed to provide enough water flow to sustain these species.

What is Johnny doing?
Johnny believes it is imperative that we update the water control plan to reflect 21st century water demand and usage in Georgia, Alabama and Florida, and he will continue to work to bring about a resolution among the states and will work to see that the threat to our Georgia lakes is stopped.

In the 100th Congress, Johnny introduced legislation with members of Georgia’s congressional delegation to provide a waiver for obligations under the Endangered Species Act to the Army Corps of Engineers during drought conditions. This would have allowed the Corps to manage the basin in a manner that is consistent with what is in the best interests of the people of the ACT and ACF basins, and not the two threatened species in that basin.

In 2006, Johnny held Senate hearings with Senator Chambliss in Gainesville and Columbus to put the Corps on record in regards to the update of the water control manuals. The senators engaged Secretary Woodley, the head of the Corps of Engineers, and Secretary Harvey, who at that time was Secretary of the Army, to urge them to take up the process of updating the water control manuals. Secretary Harvey verbally committed to the senators to begin to update the water control manuals on January 2, 2007.

On August 1, 2007, the senators met with the new Secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, as well as Woodley, Lieutenant General Robert L. Van Antwerp and General Counsel Craig Schmauder. At the meeting, Geren indicated his desire to give mediation time to work before starting the update of the water control manuals. However, Geren gave his commitment to the senators that if and when mediation broke down and was not making progress, he would begin the update of the water control manuals. On September 28, 2007, after judges involved in the mediation announced that the talks had broken down, the senators sent a letter to Geren strongly urging him to honor his pledge to update the water control plan.

On October 18, 2007, Johnny received some positive news from Secretary Geren with regards to Georgia's water crisis. Secretary Geren committed to him by telephone and in writing that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin to update the water control manual for the drought-ravaged ACT River Basin. Johnny and Senator Chambliss have been urging the Corps for at least two years to update the water manuals governing this river basin as well as the ACF River Basin. The current releases of water from these two basins are based on science and population figures that are almost 20 years old and that do not reflect the tremendous growth and modern-day needs of Georgia. While it is a good first step by Secretary Geren to begin an update of the ACT River Basin, Johnny urged him to also begin an update of the water control manual governing Georgia's other drought-ravaged basin, the ACF River Basin.

On January 30, 2008, Secretary Geren committed to Johnny by telephone and in writing that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin to update the water control manual for the drought-ravaged ACF River Basin.

On July 17, 2009, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that Georgia must stop withdrawing water in three years from Lake Lanier for the metro Atlanta region unless it can get permission from Congress to do so. Magnuson's ruling says Lake Lanier wasn't authorized to provide the metro Atlanta region's water supply and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been illegally reallocating water from Lake Lanier to meet metro Atlanta's water needs.

Governor Sonny Perdue has said the state would take a multi-pronged approach in challenging Magnuson's ruling. Judge Magnuson's decision does not rule out renewed negotiations between Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Governor Perdue said he is willing to discuss a plan that benefits all three states, but not one that puts downstream states in charge of how we manage our water supply.

On September 29, 2010, Johnny and Senator Chambliss introduced four pieces of legislation aimed at ensuring Georgia's water needs.

The first piece of legislation, S.3910, would authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to include the effects of current and future water supply withdrawals from Lake Lanier in the update of the water control manual for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin. Currently, the Corps is not including water supply withdrawals in the long overdue update of the manual for the ACF basin. Isakson and Chambliss believe that a document that doesn't take into account current and future water supply withdrawals from Lake Lanier as well as other points in the system is useless.

The second piece of legislation, S.13, would allow cities and counties who withdraw water from a federal reservoir to subtract the amount of water they return to the reservoir from a wastewater or water supply system from their total withdrawal. Currently, local governments do not receive any credit for the treated water that they return to the reservoir.

The third piece of legislation, S.12, would authorize Lake Lanier for the purpose of municipal and industrial water supply. On July 17, 2009, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that Georgia must stop withdrawing water in three years from Lake Lanier for the metro Atlanta region's water supply unless it can get permission from Congress to do so. Magnuson's ruling says Lake Lanier wasn't authorized to provide the metro Atlanta region's water supply and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been illegally reallocating water from Lake Lanier to meet metro Atlanta's water needs.

The fourth piece of legislation, S.3911, would authorize both Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona for the purpose of municipal and industrial water supply.

Johnny will continue to work closely with all stakeholders in Georgia toward a resolution. He believes all options should be on the table, including litigation, legislation and negotiation.

Johnny also believes Judge Magnuson's ruling gives Georgia, Alabama and Florida three years to try to reach agreement on how to allocate water from the basin and then to get the agreement authorized by Congress. The entire Georgia congressional delegation is working with Governor Perdue and his staff to pursue that course.

Johnny will work tirelessly to reach an agreement that is in the best interest of Georgia while at the same time respecting the interests and concerns of Florida and Alabama. He believes this is a huge challenge, but it is a challenge we must meet.