The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system flows like a giant “Y” through the center of Georgia, with its left arm bordering Alabama, right arm dissecting the state, and tail flowing into Florida.

The river is a main artery for Georgia’s drinking water, Alabama’s hydroelectric power, and Florida’s shrimp and oyster industry. It's also the source of a 20-year battle between the three states over how to share water. The debate is clearly focused on the South, but it's a story that is playing out across the nation as water becomes more precious.

The southern dispute has played out in courts and backroom negotiations. Pitted against each other are the states' varying interests — agriculture, fisheries, power generation, navigation, recreation, and of course domestic and industrial water users — with states flexing their legal muscles in hopes of winning the right to use more water. This has been particularly critical during drought conditions (think 2007 and 2012) when water capacity has been squeezed.

Thanks to a new plan, the beginning of the end of this epic battle could be in sight. The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Stakeholders (ACFS), a grassroots organization that represents a range of water users across the river basin, has spent $1.7 million over the past five years to collect and crunch data, looking for ways to equitably manage the river basin.

“Success will not be found through another contentious lawsuit or a one-time agreement that will be obsolete in a number of years,” says the report. “Instead, it will be forged through a carefully constructed, enduring management framework that fosters cooperation, represents the values and interests of all stakeholders in the basin and responds to changing conditions.”

act-acf river basinThe Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin has been in litigation for more than two decades, but it's just one part of the story. Water resources don't care about state boundaries, even if politicians do. As the map above shows, there's a second water basin, the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa basin, that crosses boundaries and requires cooperation. (Photo: Atlanta Regional Commission)
The plan's proposals range from commonsense options like implementing water conservation and efficiency measures across the three states, to those that are more data-driven, like raising pool levels at Lake Lanier by 2 feet and raising West Point Lake’s levels by 4.5 feet to increase storage capacity.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of reservoir levels, is working with all the players to create a manual for how the water basin should be shared.

Still, the plan's biggest aim is the establishment of a water management institution between the three states. That would require the support of state governments, federal agencies and all who have a stake in the outcome.

“This isn't going to be the only issue we have to face,” says Laurie Fowler, director for policy for the University of Georgia River Basin Center. “There’s going to be changing climate, and land use and population changes. So we don't need one formula; we need the ability to talk to one another and have a framework to collaborate so we can try to manage these issues and spot problems before ever thinking about going to court.”

Luckily, water wars are common, and there are blueprints to follow. One example of such collaboration can be found in the Delaware River Basin Commission, which has played a major role in solving a similar water dispute between Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. The commission developed a successful water management process for a watershed that stretches 330 miles and requires federal, state and local agencies to reach consensus.

"The [Delaware River Basin] Commission's formation in 1961 changed the Delaware basin from an arena of conflict to a model of state and federal cooperation," says Clarke Rupert, spokesperson for the DRBC. "In the 54 years since it has been in existence, the DRBC has not had to use litigation to resolve water conflicts."

Another example is the more recently formed Catawba-Wateree River Basin Advisory Committee, established in 2004, which helped negotiate a water dispute between South Carolina and North Carolina. These success stories offer inspiration for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint plan.

Said ACFS board chair Betty Webb: “It is entirely possible to manage and share the water in this river basin, but we all need to work together to accomplish that.”