Georgia’s water battles to get brief public airing this week

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Lake Lanier in 2009
Lake Lanier in 2009

Lake Lanier in 2009.

Much of Georgia’s decades-long water fight with Alabama and Florida has happened away from public view — in court rooms, federal offices and, most recently, the smoke-filled hideaways of congressional leaders putting the finishing touches on a gargantuan wrap-up spending bill.

But for once lawmakers will have the chance to debate out in the open — for a brief moment, at least — how much Atlanta can slurp from two river basins before waters flow downstream into Alabama and Florida.

That’s what will make the next few days in the U.S. Senate so darn interesting.

FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2012 file photo, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Millennials have emerged as the nation’s largest living generation yet you wouldn’t know it from the power brokers in the Republican-controlled Senate. The body’s eldest members wield the gavel as committee chairmen, and several of them are asking voters to give them another six years. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The chamber is slated to begin floor debate today on the 2017 government spending bill that oversees the Justice Department and other federal agencies. While most of the attention will likely focus on guns in the aftermath of this weekend’s terrorist attack in Orlando, this is the measure that’s overseen by Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, Georgia’s most powerful opponent on Capitol Hill regarding water rights.

Shelby slipped a provision into a document accompanying the spending bill that, among other things, requests a report from the Justice Department on “all federal water contract violations in multi-state water basins since 2005.”  It’s very similar to language Shelby inserted into a different spending bill last year, and Georgia lawmakers say it could tip the balance of power in the state’s 27-year battle to divvy up water from its rivers.

Georgia’s congressional delegation won the battle last year, but Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue are mounting a new offensive this week to ensure that the new effort is stopped in its tracks.

“We are going to use every tool at our disposal to stop any bill from moving forward that would negatively impact any state’s water supply,” said Perdue.

The pair plans to vote against even beginning debate on the bill later this morning because of the language. From there, an Isakson spokeswoman said the two-term lawmaker plans to craft several amendments, all with the same goal of blocking funding for the language penned by Shelby.

There’s no guarantee the Senate will ultimately vote on those amendments, and a final compromise on the underlying spending bill is unlikely before the election. Lawmakers without a dog in the water fight have generally tried to stay out of it, but Isakson said others should care out of principle and help the Georgians strip the language from the underlying measure as soon as possible.

“What is of interest to you would be any time the Congress decided to inject its nose into your business,” Isakson said in a speech on the Senate floor yesterday afternoon. If senators allow debate to begin on the bill, they “will be injecting 100 senators into the issue between six. That’s not the right way to do it. “

Isakson and Perdue wants the water rights battle to be decided by the courts. (Georgia and Florida recently said they were ready to go to trial later this year to resolve their differences over water rights.) The senators representing Florida and Alabama, meanwhile, say it’s Congress’ prerogative to act given that the governors of the three states have yet to come up with a compact of their own.

“Unfortunately, a resolution to this decades-long dispute does not seem any closer than when it began,” the group wrote in a letter to Senate leaders  last month. “Therefore, we believe that Congress has clearly spoken on this matter and should follow through with its prior commitment to facilitate a solution by the states.”

Catch up on our special water wars coverage here. 

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