Georgia will be able to keep more of its Lake Lanier water, as a federal appeals court ruled the Army Corps of Engineers has the authority to allocate extra water from the manmade lake to meet the increasing needs of Atlanta residents. The decision will result in less water being sent from the northeastern Georgia lake to Alabama and Florida.
Had the panel upheld an earlier court ruling, Atlanta’s capacity to provide water for its residents and businesses would have been seriously jeopardized, with shortages likely beginning in 2012.
The Army Corps now has a year to create a plan for managing the lake’s water resources and distributing them among Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.
Longstanding Water Dispute
Legal battles began years ago when Atlanta’s rapid growth and increased water needs ran up against the agreement over Lake Lanier water allocations that had existed among the three states. Alabama and Georgia tried—unsuccessfully—to negotiate a new agreement that would have protected Alabama’s water allocations while serving Georgia’s growing population. The states could not find common ground and went to court. In July 2009 a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the lower states and prohibited the Army Corps from increasing the amount of water allocated to Georgia.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) called the appellate court decision a “great victory” and said in a prepared statement, “this means that the lake will continue to be available to meet Georgia’s needs.”
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R), however, said in a press statement the court appeal “upset 60 years of settled understanding” about why Lake Lanier was built in the first place.
The battle probably isn’t over.
“This issue has been festering for a while. Alabama and Georgia have tried to negotiate an agreement, but they weren’t successful,” said Robert Sanchez, policy director for the Tallahassee, Florida-based James Madison Institute. Sanchez criticized the appellate court ruling, noting the court is located in Atlanta.
“The real problem has been that Atlanta has not had the foresight to look for additional water sources before it grew,” said Sanchez.
Atlanta should have planned ahead before building, Sanchez said, and asked the obvious question: “Hey, what are you going to do when your lake runs dry? Atlanta didn’t ask.”
Sanchez said another court hearing on the matter still looms, and the case could ultimately come before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The underlying issues, he said, involve more than water, touching also on economic policy and peoples’ livelihoods. Atlanta needs drinking water, but Florida’s Apalachicola Bay fishing and oyster industry is dependent on the draw of Lake Lanier and the water it supplies its tributaries.
“As far as the seafood industry goes, we’re really kicking them when they’re already down,” Sanchez said.
Cheryl Chumley, [email protected], writes from northern Virginia.