Water ruling win for Georgia, Metro-AtlantaBy SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
The U.S. Supreme Court handed the state of Georgia and metro-Atlanta a victory this week in the ongoing “water wars” over the water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers.
On Monday, the court declined to hear Alabama and Florida’s appeal of a ruling made last year by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court of appeals had overturned a 2009 ruling by Federal Judge Paul Magnuson, who said water supply was never an official purpose of Lake Lanier. He set a deadline of summer 2012 for Georgia, Alabama, and Florida to come to an agreement on the use of water from the lake. Barring that, or congressional action to change the “authorized purposes” of Lake Lanier, Magnuson ruled water withdrawals for metro-Atlanta utilities would have to go back to the levels allowed in the 1970s.
Alabama and Florida appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s decision to not hear the appeal means the ruling stands.
“By denying the hearing —they affirmed that drinking water was always an authorized use of Lake Lanier,” said State Rep. Lynn Smith, R-Newnan. Smith, chairwoman of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, has been involved in the water debate for years.
Smith said that, while drinking-water supply wasn’t specifically listed as an authorized purpose along with flood control, navigation, and hydroelectric power generation, “it was never intended not to be a purpose.”
“That river had always been used that way,” Smith said, and creating the lake “wasn’t intended to deprive the citizens of Georgia” of a source of drinking water.
And on Tuesday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls Lanier and other dams on the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, said in a filing with the court of appeals that it has the authority to grant Georgia’s request to draw enough water out of Lanier and the Chattahoochee to meet the state’s needs.
It hasn’t yet made the decision whether or not to grant the request, however.
“Today’s legal opinion and technical analysis by the Corps that it has the authority to grant Georgia’s previous water supply request is welcome news and an important step toward the Corps’ final reallocation decision,” said Gov. Nathan Deal Tuesday.
“Ultimately, deciding how much of Lake Lanier can be allocated for drinking water supply is the most important determination facing Georgia, the metro Atlanta region and our neighboring ACF basin states,” Deal said.
The water wars have been going on since 1990, when Alabama filed suit to prevent the Corps from allocating water that was intended for power generation to metro-Atlanta’s water supply.
Things have heated up in the past few years, especially following Magnuson’s ruling.
Since then, Georgia has had a three-pronged approach: conserving water and working on additional water supply, seeking congressional action, and filing suit through the legal system.
Though there have been negotiations in the past, very little progress has been made.
Last summer’s ruling, and now the upholding of that ruling, “took a huge cloud off Georgia,” Smith said. It puts the state on “at least equal footing with Florida and Alabama,” she said.
“I’ve heard a couple of people say that we’re ‘moving from the courtroom to the conference room,’” Smith said. “That is a really strong message, because we’ve got to figure out the process of working together.”
When you’re in a legal battle, “you’re trying to create winners and losers,” Smith said.
“When you sit down and you’re in a conference room and you’re negotiating, you’re trying to create a scenario that everyone can live with,” Smith said.
The next step in the negotiations is the Corps’ release of a “revised interim operation plan” for Lanier’s Buford Dam.
In the 2011 ruling, the court of appeals gave the Corps one year to revise the plan.
A recent finding by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the Corps’ proposal for water flows would not significantly harm protected mussel species in the Apalachicola River is also considered good news.
“Georgia has been handicapped for 12 years in its negotiations” because of various court rulings, Smith said. “Now everybody just needs to sit back down” and try to work things out.
Smith said she is sticking to what she has been saying for years: “We’re all going to be well served if we live by a good neighbor policy,” she said.
“Obviously we’re excited about the findings and about what that means for how we move forward,” said Chris Clark.
Clark is currently president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, but he was involved in the water wars first as head of the Georgia Environmental Facilities (now Finance) Authority, and as commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
“If you look back several years and look at the strategy the state took,” it included focusing on appealing Magnuson’s ruling, as well as focusing on planning and improving infrastructure and resources.
Over the past several years, various groups, including business, “all had to give a little bit to have a better plan, a state better positioned” for the future, Clark said.
“For me, it is a celebration,” he said of the supreme court’s decision. But “we’re not finished yet. We’ve still got work to do.”