Tentative agreement reached.
On December 13, 2000, negotiators from Alabama and Georgia reached a tentative agreement on a water allocation formula to share surface water resources in the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) River Basin. Georgia stipulated, however, that its final approval would hinge on also reaching agreement with Alabama and Florida on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin. Deadline for completing both agreements is now May 1, 2001.
What’s in the ACT agreement?
Assuming the states agree on the ACF and the ACT becomes a reality as currently proposed, what is in the ACT agreement that we should know?
The tentative ACT agreement is an Alabama proposal and contains provisions that showed each state had to soften its previous demands. One of the major changes was to change the effective period from the end of 2050 to the end of 2030. Negotiations to renew or modify the agreement would begin in 2027, assuming one of the states does not opt out beforehand.
Within ten days after the commencing the agreement, Alabama agrees to dismiss its lawsuit that in 1990 had stopped the original efforts to redirect waters from the ACT Basin to the Atlanta area.
A public review of a “howgozit” on the agreement will be available on or before the tenth anniversary of the commencement date.
Reservoir releases, transfers, and demands are key.
The heart of the agreement concerns the management of flow out of Allatoona and Carters reservoirs in Georgia. The Corps of Engineers will be required to make weekly average releases from both reservoirs in accordance with guide curves based on the amount of water available in each. Interpreting the language of the agreement requires a lawyer with an engineering degree, but here are the major points, much simplified:
a) Releases from federal reservoirs at Allatoona and Carters Lake (Section 2.2), plus flows into the system between those two reservoirs and Rome, must equal 1800 cfs at Rome as long as elevations of the two reservoirs stay above a proposed seasonal level. If reservoir elevations decrease below a predetermined level, the flow at Rome can be reduced to no lower than 1200 cfs as compared to the all-time low of about 900 cfs. Historically, flows at Rome are above 1800 cfs over 90% of the time.
b) Georgia may withdraw up to 25% of the average annual daily flow at Mayo’s Bar (Section 2.5.C). The average annual daily flow at Mayo’s Bar is approximately 6600 cfs. Alabama has the same limitations on withdrawal as measured at the mouths of the Coosa and the Tallapoosa, and at Claiborne Dam.
c) Transfers from the ACT to the ACF Basin (Section 2.5B) are limited to 75 mgd until the year 2010 (currently it’s approximately 60 mgd.) Then the limit is increased to 90 mgd until the year 2020 after which the limit is again raised to 100 mgd until the end of the current agreement in 2030. (These figures are in contrast to the 200 mgd Georgia demanded previously.)
d) Georgia may contract for withdrawal of up to 220 mgd from Allatoona and 60 mgd from Carters on an annual average basis to meet municipal and industrial water supply requirements within Georgia (Section 3.1.A). These figures include any transfers to the ACF system and consumption between those two reservoirs and the Alabama state line.
e) Alabama Power Company must operate its Coosa and Tallapoosa projects to maintain a weekly average minimum release from Walter Bouldin, Jordan, and Thurlow Dams of not less than 4640 cfs (Section 2.3), which is the current agreement between APC and the Corps of Engineers in support of the Alabama River.
f) Georgia may build its West Georgia Regional Reservoir (Section 2.4) with a stipulation that provides a guaranteed minimum flow into the Tallapoosa River system, depending on the size of the reservoir built.
g) No transfers between the Coosa River Basin and the Tallapoosa River Basin are allowed unless the West Georgia reservoir is not built, in which case an annual average transfer of 14 mgd will be allowed.
h) The Governor of each state will continue to function as the ACT Basin Commission. (Section 5.1)
i) The ACT Commission will accord management and enforcement authority to an ACT Committee made up of voting and non-voting members. The voting members will consist of one member and one alternate member appointed by each Governor, i.e., each state will have one vote. All decisions by the Committee will have to be unanimous. (Section 5.1)
j) Non-voting members of the ACT Committee will include a representative each from the US Geological Survey, the Corps of Engineers, Alabama Power Company, and an appointed representative from the Federal Commissioner. The Committee may appoint other non-voting members as needed. (Section 5.1)
k) Water quality standards of each state will be honored, with continuous monitoring within each state. (Section 5.2)
l) The ACT Committee will draft a drought plan within two years for approval by the ACT Basin Commission, with interim procedures established until the plan is approved. (Section 5.2B)
m) The two Governors and the Federal Commissioner each will appoint an expert in hydrology, water quality, and biology, for a total of nine people, to a Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC). The SAC will report annually to the ACT Committee with monitoring and reporting data versus performance indicators along with recommendations to improve performance. (Section 5.4)
n) Each State will report to the ACT Commission at the end of June each year of the agreement its withdrawals and returns for the previous four quarters of the year. This frequency would be increased during a specified drought period. (Section 5.C.F)
Currently, users within Georgia take approximately 179 mgd from the ACT Basin, including the 60 mgd transfer to the ACF. Georgia has projected demands of approximately 340 mgd, including the100 mgd transfer limitation, between 2020 and 2030.
Model runs show effects.
Negotiators used a model to evaluate projected demands through 2030, including the 100 mgd interbasin transfer, using the historic flow data from the period 1939-1989. Results of the model run can be found on the Alabama Office of Water Resources website at adeca.state.al.us and clicking on the Office of Water Resources tab. Following are general results of the model run versus historic data at key points in the ACT Basin:
- An increase in the average annual elevation at both Allatoona and Carters Lake of between one and five feet with the variance seasonal.
- A decrease in the average daily flow of 416 cfs at Rome, 107 cfs at Tallassee, 880 cfs at Montgomery, and 983 cfs at Claiborne Dam on the Lower Alabama River.
- An increase in the average annual elevation at Alabama Power reservoirs on the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers.
It should be understood that the model is an admittedly imperfect representation that may not necessarily reflect real world flows. Neither does it reflect current conditions since flows recorded over the last ten years, including obviously the last two years of drought conditions, have not been included. The model, however, should give us some idea of how new operating parameters would affect the Basin’s river flows.
From the perspective of Alabama and the Rome area of Georgia, the agreement does provide a certainty of flow during a drought situation, something we didn’t have before. We also know that demands for water in both Georgia and Alabama will increase which will mean corresponding decreases in flow rates. But, assuming the model at least shows trends resulting from these proposed operating parameters, CARIA has the following observations:
- There is a pronounced decrease from historic river flow volume in the Rome area as well in the Alabama River. Rome is protected in drought to some degree with a minimum flow set at 1200 cfs versus the historic low in 1988 of 907 cfs. But downstream, the Alabama River, particularly the Lower Alabama, does not fare as well. The major flaw lies in the decrease in flows at Claiborne, exacerbating an already unacceptably low navigation reliability rate below Claiborne by decreasing the amount of water available to maintain the channel. When the channel is dredged to design depths, a flow of 7500 cfs is required to maintain the nine-foot navigation channel below Claiborne. Historically, that flow is attained over 90% of the time, but as siltation occurs throughout the year, more flow is needed to maintain the nine-foot depth. This agreement would reduce the availability of 7500 cfs to less than 90%, which portends a major problem even during a “normal” year, but especially during drought periods of the year.
- The decreased flow rates on the Alabama will have a detrimental effect on Federal hydropower generation capability at the RF Henry and Millers Ferry facilities. Possible consequences are higher electrical costs, especially during the hot summer months. We must wonder what the effects will be on Alabama Power’s capability to generate on the Coosa and Tallapoosa.
- The decreased flow on the Alabama may have detrimental effects on the ecology of the Alabama River Basin.
- Elevation levels for both the Allatoona and Carters Lake Reservoirs through most of the year are from 1 to 5 feet higher than they have been historically. The question is, for the benefit of whom? Both projects were built based on regional benefits, including navigation on the Alabama, not for a distinct population outside the Basin.
- Changing the purpose of Allatoona and Carters will require congressional approval.
- As written, the amount of the interbasin transfer, i.e., transfers to the ACF system, is not affected by drought conditions. Up to 150 mgd on a single day (or up to 125 mgd during a single month), as long as the average release parameters are met, could be transferred regardless of conditions in the ACT. So even during severe drought conditions, these transfers would be made. We think there should be a corresponding decrease in those transfers as conditions deteriorate through some predetermined level in the Allatoona and Carters Reservoirs. Why should the ACF system benefit during a drought at the expense of the ACT system?
- Under the provision limiting withdrawals from Allatoona to 220 mgd and from Carters to 60 mgd (Section 3.1.A), Georgia and the Corps of Engineers have the freedom to pursue or contract for greater amounts than those stipulated and for a period beyond 2030. In other words, Georgia could ask for more water than allowed in this agreement. Nothing prevents them from doing so. Any dispute over such a requirement would have to follow the agreed course of resolution, but the sense is, Georgia looks at this agreement as something to tolerate until it can get into a position to demand more.
- The agreement calls for a report on withdrawals and returns once a year (Section 5.c.f), except during stipulated droughts. For management purposes, it seems a quarterly – or better, a monthly – report would be more useful and provide a better view of what’s happening within the system.
- The ACT agreement is hinged to the ACF (Section 4.1). A suspension event, a term new to this proposal, sets three conditions under which the operational guidelines of the agreement would be suspended. The first is if the Corps of Engineers can not or will not, for whatever reason, meet its obligations under the new guidelines in either the ACT or the ACF. The second is that one of the States can not or will not meet its guidelines. The third, entitled “Other Suspension Events,” has three parts and ties the ACT agreement directly to the ACF. The ACT agreement is suspended if:
- any part of the operating guidelines set down in the ACT or the ACF agreement are found to be “invalid or unenforceable for any reason whatsoever” as determined by a court of law or a federal agency with enforcing authority;
- the computer model used for predicting and managing stipulated flows is found to be either incorrect or inconsistent with the guidelines;
- Alabama, Florida, or Georgia unilaterally “exercises any right to suspend or terminate the ACF agreement.”
Link with ACF a problem.
Why would the ACF links be in the ACT agreement? To protect the Atlanta metro area, to give Georgia the freedom to pursue additional measures to gain water for the ACF that would not be available otherwise. The linkage appears to do nothing for the ACT Basin, for Alabama, or for the Rome area of Georgia. It is worth noting that, should a suspension occur, there are provisions within the Compact to address the reasons for the suspension and find a solution. If a solution cannot be found, then the states are free to pursue any action they deem necessary.
Stakeholders due explanation of agreement’s effects.
Perhaps a full explanation of the agreement would mollify some of our concerns. It is incumbent on the State of Alabama to ensure those explanations are made to the satisfaction of everybody in the ACT Basin. One of the ways would be, to the maximum extent possible, reveal exactly what would have happened to reservoir levels, hydrogeneration, water flows, environmental health etc. throughout the ACT Basin if the formula had been in effect the last two years.
Also, what would happen if Georgia were able to press the full use of the limitations provided in this agreement? For example, withdrawal of the 25% of the average annual daily flow at the state line? That’s a lot of water, over a billion gallons a day. Supposedly, it would be almost physically impossible to build enough reservoirs or establish enough users within the ACT Basin in Georgia to reach that level of use, but an explanation of what is theoretical versus practical is in order.