Homes and docks on river

Lake Lanier, which supplies drinking water for Atlanta, has been at the heart of water conflicts between Georgia and Florida as drought persists across the U.S. Southeast.

AP Photo/Pouya Dianat/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Florida-Georgia water war kills weather forecasting bill

A decades-long feud between Georgia and Florida over water has killed a bill in the U.S. Congress that was poised to bolster the nation’s weather forecasting capabilities, including support for seasonal predictions and commercial alternatives to collecting data.

The Senate passed the bill on 1 December, building off earlier legislation in the House of Representatives. With broad bipartisan support, it was widely expected to pass the House again and be signed into law by President Barack Obama. But when the bill returned to the House this week, a section had been added by Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL) calling for a study of the water management of a river system shared by Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. That addition drew a heated, nearly unanimous rebuke from Georgia representatives, and the bill was not brought up for a vote before the House adjourned for the remainder of the year.

The study was not relevant to the rest of the bill, says Representative Doug Collins (R–GA). It was “the latest in a series of attempts by Alabama and Florida senators to interfere in the ongoing tristate water wars through congressional intervention. I have maintained that Congress should not interfere in this issue, yet Alabama and Florida repeatedly try to tilt the playing field at the expense of Georgia.”

For decades, the states have battled over the Apalachicola River and its two tributaries, the Chattahoochee and Flint. In the 1950s, Georgia dammed the Chattahoochee to create Lake Lanier, which has fueled Atlanta’s rapid growth. In Florida’s view, this has reduced the freshwater reaching the Gulf of Mexico, causing brackish water and threatening oysters. The conflict has reached the highest levels, with the Supreme Court expected to rule next year on a lawsuit Florida has brought against Georgia.

The bill would have mandated that the National Water Center, an outpost of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, produce a study within 3 years advising the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the watershed’s dams and reservoirs, on ways to improve the system, focusing especially on environmental protection, flood risk, and recreation. Georgia lawmakers, noticing no mention of agriculture or drinking waters, sought additional language supporting these other authorized uses. But no compromise could be found.

It’s a blow to the weather community, and disappointing to see, says David Titley, a director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University in State College. “While no bill is perfect, this bill had many components that would have significantly advanced the capabilities of our national weather enterprise, and would have enhanced both the safety of our citizens, and our economy.”

It remains likely that the bill will return next year. It could move quickly toward approval, if it can get past the likely partisan gridlock in the next Congress. Scientists will continue to push for a deal, says Tony Busalacchi, the president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, based in Boulder, Colorado, which has advocated for the bill for 4 years. “We look forward to working with lawmakers next year on legislation to further strengthen the nation’s weather forecasting capabilities.”

The bill would have been the first significant legislation to address weather in a generation. It would have boosted NOAA’s capacity to make seasonal weather predictions between 2 weeks and 2 years out, and called for the agency to improve its hurricane, tsunami, and tornado research. It also required NOAA to shift from relying exclusively on its own satellites and weather data and to look for commercial alternatives wherever possible.

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