By Bill Rankin
A federal judge on Friday ruled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been illegally reallocating water from Lake Lanier to meet metro Atlanta’s needs, but he’s not turning off the tap just yet.
The judge overseeing the high-stakes case wants a political solution and is sending the fight to Congress.
In the meantime, the current withdrawal levels from Lake Lanier will be allowed to stay the same — but not increase, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled. And if a political solution cannot be worked out in three years, the judge said, his order will take effect.
This means the metro area will not be allowed to use Lake Lanier as its primary source of water supply.
“Thus…only Gainesville and Buford will be allowed to withdraw water from the lake,” Magnuson said in a 97-page order. “The court recognizes that this is a draconian result. It is, however, the only result that recognizes how far the operation of the Buford [Dam] project has strayed from the original authorization.”
Magnuson, of St. Paul, Minn., was picked in 2007 to decide the almost two-decades-old tristate water wars case involving Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
His ruling handed the metro area a crushing legal defeat. The judge found that the Corps of Engineers should have obtained congressional approval before allowing Lake Lanier to be the metro area’s primary source of water supply.
In a joint statement, Georgia senators Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss acknowledged it is now up to Congress to reach a compromise.
“We will work tirelessly to reach an agreement that is in the best interest of Georgia while at the same time respecting the interests and concerns of Florida and Alabama,” the senators said. “This is a huge challenge, but it is a challenge we must meet.”
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley praised the ruling, saying he hopes it leads to renewed negotiations between the three states and a “fair and equitable” agreement.
“Atlanta has based its growth on the idea that it could take whatever water it wanted whenever it wanted it, and that the downstream states would simply have to do with less,” Riley said. “Following the court’s ruling today, this massive illegal water grab will be coming to an end.”
Gil Rogers, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the ruling puts Georgia in a much weaker negotiating position with respect to Lake Lanier water rights.
“This is a real wakeup call for the metro Atlanta area,” he added. “Drought or no drought, this area can no longer take water for granted and should move as quickly as possible to sustainable water management practices that do not involve controversial reservoirs.”
Magnuson said he was sympathetic to the plight of the Corps of Engineers because it has to deal with competing claims to Lake Lanier’s water — a finite resource.
But the judge said the Corps’ reallocation of Lake Lanier’s water without congressional approval was illegal and in violation of the Water Supply Act. And Magnuson said it was “beyond comprehension” that the Corps’ current operating manual for the Buford Dam is more than 50 years old.
He encouraged the Corps to update its water supply plans so those in the Apalachiocola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin can determine how the operation of Buford Dam will affect their future interests and whether it can meet their water needs.
But Magnuson also said the blame cannot be placed solely on the Corps’ shoulders.
“Too often,” Magnuson wrote, “state, local and even national government actors do not consider the long-term consequences of their decisions. Local governments allow unchecked growth because it increases tax revenue, but these same governments do not sufficiently plan for the resources such unchecked growth will require.”
Nor do individual citizens consider frequently enough their own water consumption, absent a crisis such as the recent drought, the judge said.
“The problems faced in the ACF basin will continue to be repeated throughout this country, as the population grows and more undeveloped land is developed,” Magnuson said. “Only by cooperating, planning and conserving can we avoid the situtations that gave rise to this litigation.”