UGA center helping resolve ‘water wars’

(Editor’s note: To read more about what UGA is doing to protect natural resources, go to Discover UGA.)

At the request of the major stakeholders in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River watershed — including cities, utilities, power companies and river keepers — the University of Georgia River Basin Center is providing information that might help them resolve a longstanding dispute over how to fairly allocate the waters between Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

The River Basin Center brought together and led a three-state consortium of faculty and students at UGA, Albany State University, Auburn University, Florida State University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Troy University and the University of Florida to identify strategies for sustainable transboundary management of the ACF watershed-a subject that has been tied up in legal wrangling for more than 20 years and is the subject of a lawsuit between Georgia and Florida currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Major water users convened as the ACF Stakeholders Inc. to look for an equitable solution because they realized that leaving allocation decisions to the court means they have little control over the outcome,” said Laurie Fowler, River Basin Center director of policy and an associate dean in the Odum School of Ecology. “The litigation has also had a direct impact on them. Some folks are reluctant to invest in the basin pending the suit’s resolution. As we’ve seen in other interstate river basins, that can mean lost opportunities for economic growth in areas that depend on a reliable water supply. But the biggest problem is that if the Supreme Court reaches an allocation decision or cap, it’s likely not to be adaptable and responsive to new challenges; it might well be out-of-date in a few years.” 

Fowler explained that a special master of the Supreme Court — an attorney appointed to oversee the case — just denied a motion to dismiss the suit and is urging settlement. 

“What’s needed in the long run is an institution that provides for consensus building and sharing resources and vision across the states,” she said. “Our university consortium was tasked with providing options for how to do that.”

The group extensively studied 26 transboundary institutions around the world. They looked closely at their composition and governance structure, staffing, funding, functions, successes and failures and particularly the mechanisms that enable them to adapt to new challenges and issues over time. These include growing populations and changing climate-issues that are relevant to the ACF basin as well.

They also identified the areas where a regional versus state approach is needed in the ACF basin and mechanisms for sharing some of the costs and burdens of managing the rivers to satisfy the needs of the gamut of users.

The university consortium turned in its final report in September, and the ACF Stakeholders are currently taking their suggestions to representatives of the states and the state and federal water managers to determine interest in pursuing transboundary management.

“This is truly cutting-edge research,” Fowler says. “We’re being asked for our findings by groups from all over, including Western states where recent compacts are suffering from lack of adaptability. Bloomberg BNA will soon publish an invited article, and we’ve taught several recent national webcasts as well as participated in invited talks to the annual meeting of the American Bar Association’s national resource and energy section and Southeastern groups.”

The project has also provided an opportunity for UGA students to develop and apply science and policy research skills; more than 25 UGA graduate students have contributed, and it is the subject of two doctoral dissertations.

“The ACF project is a perfect example of what the RBC is all about,” Fowler said. “Innovative research, hands-on experiential learning and meaningful public service that’s helping Georgia to protect and manage our natural resources in a sustainable way.”


To learn more about the UGA River Basin Center, see

— Beth Gavrilles, Odum School of Ecology