Judge: Lake Lanier’s withdraws are illegal

Published 6:43 pm Friday, July 17, 2009

« Click Here To Download The Ruling Document

The original intent of Lake Lanier—which was not to supply water for the Atlanta metropolitan area’s four million people—must be honored and future water withdrawals must be approved by Congress, a federal judge ruled Friday.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson of the Minnesota District said the water withdrawals must stop within three years unless the Atlanta-area municipalities receive approval from Congress.

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“The Court recognizes that this is a draconian result,” Magnuson wrote. “It is, however, the only result that recognizes how far the operation of the (lake) has strayed from the original authorization.”

U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, both Republicans, said Friday in a joint statement, “The judge’s ruling places the decision of allocation of water from Lake Lanier solely on the shoulders of Congress. As members of the U.S. Senate from Georgia, 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. This is a huge challenge, but it is a challenge we must meet.”

According to Associated Press and Atlanta Journal-Constitution stories, the judge said if Georgia can’t get permission from Congress within three years, the withdrawals must end.

The case involves a 2003 water-sharing agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers that would have allowed Georgia to take far more water from Lanier for its drinking supply over the coming decades. The deal would have allowed Georgia’s withdrawals to jump from about 13 percent of the lake’s capacity to about 22 percent.

Florida and Alabama contested the pact, saying the lake was initially built for hydropower and providing water to metro Atlanta was not an authorized use.

Magnuson cited a lengthy historical record of testimony before Congress and Corps of Engineers documents to establish that serving Atlanta’s water needs was only an incidental purpose for the lake. He noted that Georgia officials argued as much to avoid having to pay for part of the project when the reservoir was built in the 1950s.

Without congressional approval, the judge said the lake would return to 1970s levels, with only the cities of Gainesville and Buford allowed to take water.

That means that the operation of Buford Dam will return its “baseline” operation of the mid-1970s.

“Thus … only Gainesville and Buford will be allowed to withdraw water from the lake,” Magnuson said in a 97-page order.

Others who get withdrawals just downstream from the reservoir would also see their water supplies drastically reduced.

The ruling could drive the states’ governors back to the negotiating table—with Georgia in a weakened position—after a series of talks failed to yield a compromise in recent years.

One of the those talks involved former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, current Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue in April 2003 at Bainbridge’s Chamber of Commerce building on the Flint River, where the three had hoped to pave the way for a settlement in the Water Wars.

However, those battles have still worn on.

Gov. Charlie Crist called the ruling “a monumental milestone” in the 18-year, tri-state battle over water.

“The Judge’s decision allows the governors to come together to reach an agreement outside of the court system,” Crist said. “I look forward to working with Govs. Riley and (Georgia Gov. Sonny) Perdue to find a solution that will be beneficial for all of our states.”

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said the ruling would have a tremendous impact on his state’s economic future.

“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 make do with less,” Riley said. “Following the court’s ruling today, this massive illegal water grab will be coming to an end.”