February 15, 2022

Sustainability Series 6: The Tri State Water Wars

CIRT is a tech startup based in Athens, GA- and we depend on our local community and environment for support and recreation every day. This week our sustainability series is taking a look at a “wicked problem” that affects our home- the Tri State Water Wars.

What are the Tri State Water Wars?

The Tri State Water Wars are a decades-long dispute over hydrologic management practices in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin (ACF). This watershed originates in northeast Georgia, almost directly north of Athens, cuts through Atlanta to the Alabama border, and flows south to the Florida panhandle. The management of water in the ACF affects the economies of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, as well as ecological treasures and the ecosystem goods and services that they provide. It also affects people’s recreation opportunities and cultural resources. This is truly a problem that requires an integrative solution, to balance diverse needs and ensure that the “triple bottom line” is met. 


  • The Florida section of the ACF is home to particularly delicate habitats and a biodiversity hotspot in the once-thriving fishery in Apalachicola Bay.


  • In Florida Apalachicola Bay fishery once produced 10% of our nation’s oysters and fueled the local economy, but collapsed in 2013. That year, flows of freshwater from the ACF were reduced due to drought conditions and increased withdrawals by Georgia, causing salinity in the bay to increase and making it difficult for oysters to survive. In July2021the Florida FWS were forced to order a five-year ban on harvesting oysters to allow populations to recover.
  • The ACF supplies irrigation to a highly productive agricultural region of Georgia, who estimates that lost agricultural productivity from lower flows could cost between $355 million to over $1 billion.
  • On the Alabama side, several industries rely on the Chattahoochee River and must shut down if there is not adequate flow. 


  • The ACF provides fresh supply for more than four million people in metro Atlanta and 70% of people living in the region. Hydroelectric and nuclear power plants throughout the ACF also depend on adequate flow rates.
  • Fluctuations in the level of Lake Lanier (a reservoir for much of the water that will flow through the ACF) affect residents and visitors’ possible recreation activities, as well as causing property damage to benches, docks, and boats. As the reservoir for much of ACF’s water, there is conflict over the equity of how its water is released during drought conditions.
  • In Florida, oyster harvesting in Apalachicola Bay is a cultural legacy. Now banned, many families are unable to continue in their family tradition and feel a sense of lost heritage.

After the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery collapsed in 2013 the state of Florida sued Georgia over alleged overuse of ACF water. In April 2021, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state of Georgia, saying that Florida had failed to prove that Georgia’s water use was the cause of the crashing oyster populations. Litigation in the case has cost Georgia taxpayers $49 million.

As UGA Professor Emeritus Laurie Fowler points out in her chapter “Managing Human Conflicts” in The Food-Energy-Water Nexus, the Tri State Water Wars are just one among many case studies that shows how issues of environmental management can tie in with human conflict and have severe economic consequences. Issues such as these require integrative solutions, something that Dr. Fowler knows well as she was a leading organizer and voice in the creation of the ACF River Basin management plan. This management plan was published in 2015, after a group representing industry, farmers, residents, and environmentalists from all three states came together to create a consensus document. The plan was supported by science and unanimously accepted by all parties at the table for economic development and equity.

However, despite the watershed management plan containing solutions that addressed environmental, economic, and social concerns- created through a collaborative stakeholder process, it has not been accepted or implemented by government agencies. The reason? Political gridlock and an extended legal battle.

“The governors didn’t want to talk about it, [or] their staff. Why should Alabama talk about it when Georgia and Florida aren’t going to talk about it? Florida and Georgia aren’t going to talk about it during litigation….In the vernacular of the south, all the mules need to be pulling the wagon in the same direction…Meaning, all three states, all the local jurisdictions within the states and the Corps of Engineers all need to be working toward the same suit{sic} of results” -- Gordon Rogers, Georgia Flint Riverkeeper

Anyone who works in the field of environmental policy knows this situation all too well: the work has been done only to collect dust on a shelf. Quint Newcomer, adjunct faculty at the Warnell School of Forestry, says that we need to rethink the “three-legged stool” of sustainability. To the traditional environment, economy, society he says we need to add a fourth: politics. The integrative solutions of the future must meet this quadruple bottom line if they are to see the light of day and make a real change in our world.