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Our Views; Lanier in limbo

Judges’ decision on water use from lake has put all other action on hold

POSTED: May 24, 2011 8:50 a.m.

Waiting.

That's where state and local governments are left concerning the future of water intake from Lake Lanier.

The decision on if and when a moratorium on the reservoir's water use may take effect is up to the courts, and such rulings often tend to move at glacial speed.

It's been nearly two years since U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson issued his ruling that Georgia must reach an agreement to equitably share water in the Chattahoochee River basin by 2012 or metro Atlanta's water intakes would be scaled back to draconian mid-70s levels.

Since then, state leaders have adopted water conservation plans, passed laws to expedite the building of new reservoirs and even floated the idea of reaching a deal to share water in the Tennessee River.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages Lanier, is seeking to rewrite the original manuals from the 1950s to include water supply as an approved use of the lake, pending congressional approval.

And prior to Magnuson's decision, Hall County officials already were moving ahead with plans to create a massive new reservoir on the Glades Farm property in northwest Hall and sought a deal with the city of Gainesville to treat and use water in the smaller Cedar Creek Reservoir.

Yet all of this action came to a halt recently when the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals took up Georgia's challenge. A decision from a three-judge panel (Stanley Marcus, Lanier Anderson and Richard Mills) is expected in coming weeks, and what it may be is anyone's guess.

The panel could turn off the ticking clock and give Georgia, Florida and Alabama more time to reach an agreement, lessening the urgency to strike a deal for the time being. It could overturn the ruling completely, giving Georgia hope of retaining full use of the basin's water. Or it could uphold it completely, putting us all back where we were.

But because the court ruling will have such a huge affect on the lake's short- and long-term future, everything connected to creating new water sources has ground to a halt.

Gainesville and Hall public utilities officials are unable to plan for the future until the ruling is delivered. The city and county had agreed to mediation on who should control the water in Cedar Creek, but that remains on hold. That means permits needed to build pipelines and a treatment plant are delayed, which could put the project further behind schedule. Yet if Magnuson's ruling stands, Gainesville must quickly determine how much water it can still take from the lake and how to account for any shortfall.

"Right now, it's anybody's guess what might happen with Judge Magnuson's ruling, and depending on the curve, we could have between 8 million gallons and 35 (million) gallons per day, which we may need now, by 2015 or 2025," Gainesville Public Utilities Director Kelly Randall said recently. "Based on growth, my finance folks and engineers are saying different things. So what is it? I don't know."

Lake Lanier advocates also have sought to have Lanier's full pool level raised 2 feet to store more water in case of future drought. But that decision also remains on the back burner as everyone awaits the court decision.

"The problem with Washington is you get something worked with one bunch of people, and then there's another bunch of people in there to take their place with some other issue," state Sen. Jack Murphy told the Lake Lanier Association last week in Cumming.

"You've got Judge Magnuson's ruling, you've got all those suits between Georgia, Alabama and Florida, and you're dealing with the federal government and something they own that we don't own."

At the time of Magnuson's ruling, one of the criticisms of Georgia leaders was for their lack of planning for water usage at the state and local level. Uncontrolled residential and commercial growth in the Atlanta area siphoned more and more water from the river, leading cities and businesses downstream in south Georgia, Alabama and Florida to cry foul and pursue legal relief to share the resource.

But now that government officials are trying to plan better for the future, the legal limbo is keeping those efforts from moving forward.

"We need to plan this for a full 30-50 years out and fix what we can by controlling our destiny here in Hall County with Cedar Creek and Glades," said Kit Dunlap, president of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce and chairwoman of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District. "We always think about the court case, but we have no control over that."

Meanwhile, as everyone listens for when the judges to clear their throats and announce the verdict, other storm clouds gather on the horizon, this time in the form of blue skies.

Rainfall levels are down in recent weeks, the spring rainy season now behind us. As a result, Lanier's water level has dropped nearly 3 feet, and could go lower as the hot, dry days of summer approach.

Another drought, such as the one that dropped Lanier to record low levels in 2007-09, could make state and local governments' water planning efforts more critical, regardless of what any legal remedy may provide.

But before anything can happen to solve our water issues, a panel of judges must end the stalemate and let everyone know where we stand on Lake Lanier. Until that happens, all anyone can do is wait, worry and watch the skies.



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