Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions is likely to become the next U.S. attorney general. While there has been focus on his civil rights record, his stance on waterboarding and the idea of a Muslim registry, there’s another, more regional issue he’s been involved in. It’s an issue that affects all Atlantans: the water wars.
Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been fighting over the water in Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona for decades. Alabama and Florida say Georgia – especially Atlanta – uses too much water from those reservoirs.
Sessions held a congressional hearing in 2013 to draw attention to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ role in the fight.
“Regrettably, in my view, the Corps has too often sided with Atlanta by accommodating massive water withdrawals to the detriment of my constituents in Alabama as well as communities in Florida and other parts of Georgia,” he said.
Officials in Georgia do not agree with this view.
“Alabama’s claims are baseless,” Gov. Nathan Deal wrote in a letter to the heads of the Environment and Public Works Committee before the hearing. (The hearing itself was sparsely attended, but both of Georgia’s senators at the time were there.)
“The senators from Alabama and Florida have tried several times to get Congress to take action,” University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said. “The two Georgia senators have been very successful at heading off efforts from the legislators from the two other states.”
Now that Sessions may leave the Senate, the balance could shift. Bullock said, for one, Sessions wouldn’t be able to hold any more congressional hearings.
“So he wouldn’t have that chance to focus attention on the issue,” Bullock said.
But until a replacement for Sessions gets to the Senate, it’s hard to know exactly what will happen there, said Georgia Congressman Rob Woodall, a Republican from Atlanta’s northern suburbs.
“We know with certainly it will be a more junior voice,” he said. “We don’t know what the tone of that voice will be.”
And it’s possible Sessions could still have a say in the water wars if he becomes the head of the Department of Justice.
“I know some folks are concerned that a confirmation of a senator from Alabama as the attorney general of the United States would be to Georgia’s detriment,” Woodall said.
The Justice Department is already handling some water wars cases, and there are likely to be more. Sessions might need to recuse himself from a water wars case if it got to his office, said Peter Appel, a natural resources law professor at the University of Georgia School of Law.
“I don’t know whether he will choose to do that, and I don’t know of any means to legally require him to do that,” said Appel, who served in the Department of Justice before going to UGA. “It would, since he was a representative of Alabama, present a conflict of interest.”
Still, Woodall said hopefully this fight over water won’t get to that point, but if – or when – it does, that doesn’t necessarily mean Sessions would be involved.
“He’s got a lot bigger fish to fry,” Woodall said.
And Sessions’ involvement in the water wars has not been unreasonable, said Georgia Congressman Doug Collins, a Republican from northeast Georgia. It’s just part of his job as a senator from Alabama.
“I think he’s done nothing more than be an advocate for the state of Alabama just like we’ve been an advocate for the state of Georgia and the interests there, and frankly like members of Congress from the state of Florida have,” Collins said.
Florida is suing Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court over the water that flows down the Chattahoochee River from Lake Lanier. Alabama is on the sidelines on that case, though it is watching and occasionally weighing in. Alabama and Georgia are also both suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in other cases over the water in the Alabama-Coosa-Talapoosa River Basin, including Lake Allatoona.
“I would hope that Florida and Alabama would quit taking this stuff to court,” Collins said.
He’d like to see it stay out of Congress too.
“This is better left to the governors,” he said.
That’s an idea Jeff Sessions has also supported.
“What we really need is a compact between the three states involved,” Session said at the 2013 hearing.
Which is something the states have tried – and failed – to do several times before.
Right now, the representative of the Supreme Court who’s managing the Florida v. Georgia case has asked the states to find a resolution themselves, and given them until Jan. 26 to report back.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on Sessions’ confirmation after President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration.