The war over water among three southern states and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is heating up again, with a complaint by Alabama that federal officials are illegally storing water upstream, which is causing harm downstream. "It is abundantly clear that the Corps curtails hydropower production to protect recreation and water supply interests," the state says in its complaint. Corps officials declined to comment.

The state’s third amended complaint, filed Jan. 7 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, follows the collapse of settlement talks between Alabama and Georgia, which put the issue back in court. Alabama first filed a lawsuit over the water rights in 1990. "We hope to get this issue to the forefront again," said Trey Glenn, director of the Alabama Office of Water Resources, who takes over Feb. 1 as director of Alabama Dept. of Environmental Management.

The lawsuit pits Alabama and Florida against the Corps and Georgia, where five key recreational reservoirs in two river basins store drinking water for Atlanta. Alabama and Florida are left with low flows. "This is critical to Alabama’s current and future water supplies," Glenn said. The flow regime, when and how much water is released from the reservoirs by the Corps, affects both electric power and water supply, he said.

Alabama claims the Corps tailors its operations to provide releases to satisfy water supply and recreation and all other uses are wrongly deprived of massive amounts of water. "The Corps has systematically elevated water supply and recreation over hydropower and refused to make releases to meet or even partially meet system demands for hydropower," the complaint says.

The next step is for Alabama is to go to before U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, on Feb. 8 to challenge water supply contracts signed between the Corps and Atlanta. "They entered the agreement without our approval so we’re fighting it," Glenn said.

Alabama Power, which operates hydroelectric projects, steam electric generation plants and a nuclear power plant in the two river basins, has intervened in the lawsuit on the side of Alabama. "The company relies on adequate supply of water in the two basins to operate its facilities," it says. The watersheds involved are one formed by the Apalachicola, Flint and Chattahoochee rivers and another formed by the Alabama, Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers.