Judge Rules in Tri-State Water Wars that Atlanta Can't Take Water from Lake Lanier

U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson issued a decision today in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint phase of the years-long tri-state water wars between Georgia, Alabama and Florida, saying that metro Atlanta is not authorized to withdraw water from Lake Lanier. The judge gave the three states three years to negotiate a deal and get congressional approval for a compromise that would allow metro Atlanta to continue withdrawing a certain amount of water from the lake; otherwise Buford Dam must start releasing water at 1970s levels. 

Following is a statement from Gil Rogers:

“This is a resounding wake-up call for metro Atlanta. 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.

“It’s also a wake-up call for Alabama, which also needs to establish a sustainable water-use program to prevent something like this from happening there.”

An excerpt from Judge Magnusons’ ruling

“The blame for the current situation cannot be placed solely on the Corps’s shoulders, however. Too often, 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 inpidual citizens consider frequently enough their consumption of our scarce resources, absent a crisis situation such as that experienced in the ACF basin in the last few years. 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. Only by cooperating, planning, and conserving can we avoid the situations that gave rise to this litigation.”

Background:

Almost 50 years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers built Buford Dam on the Chattahoochee River, creating Lake Lanier. The authorized purpose of the lake was to provide flood control, hydropower and navigation.

The booming population of metro Atlanta began to rely on Lake Lanier for its water supply, and the Corps began issuing contracts to municipal water-supply providers without any evaluation under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In 1989, the Corps recommended that some of the lake water be reallocated for water supply in the Atlanta region.

In response, Alabama sued the Corps, claiming that reallocating the water would favor Georgia’s interests and that the Corps had violated NEPA by ignoring the environmental impacts on the downstream states. Alabama also claimed that the Corps breached its duty to operate Lake Lanier and other federal reservoirs for the benefit of all downstream users in the ACF and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa basins. Florida intervened on the side of Alabama, while Georgia and metro-Atlanta municipalities intervened on the side of the Corps.

The issue has been tied up in courts for years, and the three states have failed repeatedly to negotiate a workable solution.

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Southern Environmental Law Center

The Southern Environmental Law Center is the only regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of 40 legal experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.

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