Atlanta and downstream friends

Johanna writes*

This post offers some insight into the problems of water management in Atlanta (the capital of Georgia) and the effects of those problems on its downstream neighbors Florida and Alabama. These problems are part of a 30-year water allocation drama in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (AFC) basin.

(Map source)

In Atlanta, population growth, legal disputes, and droughts result in water scarcity. Atlanta is one of the fastest-growing urban cities in the US, relying only on surface water supplies drawn from the Chattahoochee River, the source of the Tri-state water dispute with Alabama and Florida. The litigation began in 1990 when Alabama sued the Corps to stop allocating water to Atlanta. In 2014 Florida filed a complaint in the supreme court stating that Georgia has harmed the environment downstream and a bid for equitable apportionment (background on the litigation).

All three states have different concerns about water allocation. Atlanta is  located in a water-scarce area and relies on the Chattahoochee River for 70% of its water. Georgia wants drinking water to help booming Atlanta grow but also to help farmers in the southwest of the state. Florida needs freshwater in the Apalachicola bay to sustain its multi-million-dollar oyster and shrimp industry.  Alabama is concerned about water supply for power generators, municipality supply, and other needs.

Atlanta’s excessive water withdrawal and management issues affect downstream neighbors. When Atlanta experiences drought, then it uses more Chattahoochee water, which reduces flows to the  Apalachicola bay, which kills shrimp and oysters. With less water to dilute Atlanta’s sewage and stormwater discharges, water quality falls, and salinity levels rise. Atlanta does not have the money  to fix problems, so river-water quality is deteriorating. These issues make things more difficult for downstream industrial water users, and the region is struggling to attract new businesses. (You can read more about the history of the Tri-state dispute and Atlanta’s water crisis in this book.)

How do we manage the water of the AFC basin equitably and sustainably for all three member states?

Bottom Line: Unreliable and degrading water supplies are harming downstream users. Atlanta must improve its water infrastructure and management for the sake of its water supply and the future of all three states.


* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Atlanta and downstream friends”

  1. Market pricing? How much could Atlanta outbid rural regions for water?

    Reduce and resue are one (well, two) thing; but how do we increase the amount of water available?

    I thought the south was very green, yet Atlanta has little water.

    If pipelines for oil exist, what does a pipeline for water look like?

    1. Hi Kevin,

      Atlanta has indeed an abundance of green spaces. However, like many other city’s , Atlanta is struggling with climate change and rapid population growth. Moreover, Atlanta is especially vulnerable to changes because they depend solely on the surface water supplies. Even though the region generally has abundant precipitation, a slight change in the rate of precipitation will affect them.

      I think to reduce and reuse are two very important aspects when it comes to water conservation in Atlanta. Simply, because I don’t think it is a long term solution to exhaust the local supplies to get additional water elsewhere. Water is getting scarce everywhere just on different levels.
      A recent project in Atlanta that is increasing the water supplies is the construction of the Bellwood quarry to a 2.4 billion gallon water reservoir. The project is set to increase Atlantas backup water supply from a 3 day capacity to a 30-90 day capacity and will prolong the access to clean and safe drinking water. A five-mile tunnel will connect the quarry, the Chattahoochee River, the Hemphill Water Treatment Plant. I guess this is what a pipeline for water looks like.

      I am not quite sure what you meant with the first question, but the price of water increased in Atlanta, as a response to water scarcity. And the water rates to the outside of the city center are more expensive than inside the city center.

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