Posted on October 4, 2011 by Richard Horder
In June of this year, a three judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit made an important ruling in the decades-long battle between Alabama, Florida and Georgia over rights to the water reserves of Lake Lanier in Buford, Georgia. Reversing a United States District Court decision in 2009 by Judge Magnuson, the Eleventh Circuit held that water supply for Altanta’s more than 4 million metro population is an “authorized purpose” of the Buford Project under the Rivers and Harbor Act of 1946 (“RHA”) and that the United States Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) has one year to make a final decision as to how much water Atlanta may draw from Lake Lanier.
To better understand the magnitude of this decision, a brief journey through the history of this long battle is instructive. In the 1950s, the Buford Dam was constructed and pursuant to the RHA, the Lake Lanier Reservoir was created in North Georgia to control flooding, float barges downstream, and generate power. According to the Eleventh Circuit’s most recent decision, the reservoir was also created to act as a water supply for the metro Atlanta area although the breadth of the need for this resource was unknown at the time.
As many know, the metro Atlanta area has been one of outstanding growth in the last several decades as the city and its surrounding suburbs have more than tripled their population to more than 4 million in 2010. This growth has demanded a much greater demand for water, which — under the RHA — the Corps had agreed to supply from Lake Lanier. However, in 1990, the State of Alabama sued the Corps to stop the agency from providing any more water from Lake Lanier to the metro Atlanta Area. Alabama needs water from Lake Lanier to maintain the operation of its nuclear power plant. Florida, who later intervened, needs fresh water from Lake Lanier to sustain its multi-million dollar shellfish industry.
United States Senior District Judge Magnuson was specially appointed to hear the several related water cases consolidated in the Middle District of Florida because Georgia, Alabama and Florida judges were conflicted. In 2009, Judge Magnuson held that it was illegal for the Corps to draw water from Lake Lanier for Atlanta’s needs and that the three states had until July 2012 to reach an agreement regarding water supply or Atlanta would thereafter be allowed to draw only the amounts allowed in 1970—more than 40 years ago. The Eleventh Circuit’s recent decision clearly reverses the tide. However, what does this decision really mean for the future? Both Alabama and Florida are expected to appeal this most recent decision to a full panel of the Eleventh Circuit. Thus, the water war is not over.
Governor Deal of Georgia, although pleased about this latest decision, promises to continue efforts to come to an agreement with Alabama and Florida. Hall County, located in north Georgia and currently drawing more than 18 million gallons per day from Lake Lanier, also reports that it will continue its plans to build an 856 acre reservoir to limit its dependency on Lake Lanier. At the end of the day, Georgia will still have to work diligently to design alternative water supplies for the metro Atlanta area, but there is no doubt that this most recent decision gives the rapidly growing city more time and a little breathing room.
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