The Apalachicola Water War

As they say out West, “whiskey’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’.” Well, the same folk wisdom has applied in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river system since the 1980s, when the upstream neighbor, Georgia, wanted to start taking even more water from a heavily used river system that is important to downstream communities and the ecologically significant Apalachicola Bay.

Apalachicola Bay, at the downstream end of water conflicts between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.

The ACF water war raises interesting questions about fairness between people, the importance of ecological services for humans, and the value of natural systems in their own right. This is ground we covered in 2004 in the Waters to the Sea: Chattahoochee River multimedia learning program. On this trip, our interview with Dave McLain of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper shed light on how, since 2008, grass-roots stakeholders have been finding common ground for bringing about equitable solutions. This offers new hope to a beleaguered process that has the three state governments in litigious gridlock.

For background, here is a short video from Waters to the Sea about the dams of the Chattahoochee River, which control how much water is allowed to flow downstream:

The main friction points over water in the ACF basin could be summarized like this: at the upstream end, Atlanta’s growing population of nearly four million gets most of its water from the Chattahoochee. The river forms the Georgia-Alabama border farther downstream, where municipalities and farmers want to assure that upstream use leaves enough water for human consumption, industry, and agriculture. The 350-mile Flint River, which joins the Chattahoochee just above the Florida state line, flows through an agricultural basin where groundwater is heavily tapped for irrigation. The Apalachicola River, formed by the merged Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, meanders 100 miles across the Florida panhandle through a sparsely populated watershed in a channel that was managed by the Corps for many years to allow commercial boat traffic. Dredging operations to keep the channel open have damaged spawning grounds for migratory fish. Finally, in Apalachicola Bay, oysters and other species need regular pulses of fresh water from the river, which have been disrupted by water uses upstream—this being the most critical issue impacting the ecological health of the bay.

Audio clip from interview with Dave McLain
In the following clip, McLain talks about the progress that has been made by key constituencies up and down the ACF basin through the grassroots ACF Stakeholders group, which is working to find sustainable solutions that balance “economic, ecological, and social values.”


In talking with McLain and others, certain persistent questions kept bubbling up to the surface:

  • Is access to fresh water a basic human right, as is the air we breathe?
  • How should the quantity of water in a river be divided between upstream and downstream communities and what are the best ways of working out these arrangements?
  • How should water be allocated to support the natural communities within a river’s reach?

What do you think are the best ways to approach these timeless questions?

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2 Responses to The Apalachicola Water War

  1. Mark A. Wieland says:

    Topic,water management,if I were Georgia and Alabama I wouldn’t care what Florida wants because the complete stop dredging deal of the Appalachacola ruined any chance for further economic growth in the pleasure and commercial uses of the river. A compromise of channels and possibly some locks and small dams could have alleviated the problem of excessive costly dredging.
    We built canals along side rivers in the 1800s.We suddenly forget how.Florida didn’t give a dam(that’s funny play on words) about Georgia or Alabama so you are all stuck.The fix is to build some channels alomg low spots along the river in florida complete with beautiful marinas so you don’t have to dredge those parts of the river so the boat and barge access can resume and than require that any tug or towboat be driven by paddle wheels istead of proppellers (and they do exist)so they don’t stir up the bottom and say to Georgia we will do this if you make sure x percentage of water comes down stream.Build a lock and dam down near the Gulf so you can hold some water back and pulse release it into the bay.Require dredges to haul the sand somewhere other than just dumping it on the river bank.Using locks and dams correctly you can slow down erosion and than you don’t need a lot of dredging.Not all dredging is bad.
    Or give up your car,your electric lights,and then come tell me to tear out the dams.
    Anyway good luck but I’m telling you modern technology and old can work together cleanly but know one wants to try.

    • John Shepard says:

      Thanks for your reply, Mark. Sounds like you’ve given the matter a lot of thought. Where do you live, and what’ s your connection to the Apalachicola and/or Chattahoochee Rivers?

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