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State may sue corps to save Lanier

POSTED: October 22, 2007 5:04 a.m.

Gov. Sonny Perdue announced Wednesday that the state of Georgia will seek a court order this week requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restrict water flows from Lake Lanier and Georgia’s federal reservoirs.

"The corps’ nonsensical action to further release vital water from Georgia’s already depleted federal reservoirs must not stand," Perdue said. "There is simply no scientific justification to operate these reservoirs in this manner during a historic drought like the one we are experiencing. If the corps is determined to make this ill-advised choice in favor of mussel and sturgeon species over Georgia citizens, then I must do all within my power to protect our citizens during this devastating drought."

Perdue’s decision was announced Wednesday evening and had been rumored throughout the day.

The governor’s request to the corps was delivered by letter on Friday with a response deadline of the close of business Wednesday. Perdue is out of the country on an Asian trade mission.

The decision to seek judicial relief came as the top water official said Lake Lanier is 80 days away from the end of its conservation storage level, the point where water is below the level of the gates of Buford Dam.

Environmental Protection Division Director Carol Couch said the corps was turning its back on the state.

"Rejecting our request amounts to the corps abandoning the people of the state of Georgia," Couch said.

She said a number of state agencies, including Emergency Management, were preparing to respond to the potential water shortage, calling it a disaster on the level of a hurricane.

Potential scenarios could involve bringing barges with pumps aboard to draw drinking water from the lowest level. She also predicted the water from the lower level would require additional treatment in order to be safe for consumption.

The corps announced on Friday that it was increasing the flows from Lanier. The other lakes on the Chattahoochee, Walter F. George and West Point, are also in dire condition.

"West Point lake is 90 percent empty. Walter F. George is 82 percent empty," Couch said. "Lanier is dropping by about a foot a week and the corps’ own forecast shows the lake will be between 1,039 and 1,043 (feet above sea level) by the end of the year."

The lake’s full pool level is 1,071 feet. As of Wednesday morning, it was at 1,056.93 feet.

She said that she will be sending a recommendation to Perdue about the pros and cons of additional water restrictions, including possible economic impact on water dependent industries, such as poultry processing.

"There’s an awful lot of employment in Gainesville for poultry processing," Couch said, "and it needs a certain amount of water and it needs to be high quality water. If we don’t carefully consider how we’re doing this, we could put poultry processing plants out of business and that has a ripple effect down the chain of production."

She said that if local municipalities were asked to curtail commercial water use, those communities will be allowed to give input about which businesses should be affected. She particularly mentioned the poultry industry, a key cog in Gainesville’s economy.

"This crisis will not end anytime soon," said Couch, as she predicted the state’s reservoirs would remain at low levels through 2008.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle told reporters Wednesday at the Capitol that the state would not back down from the feds in the battle of water in Lake Lanier.

"We’re not going to allow the Corps of Engineers to drain our lakes," Cagle said. "We’re going to work tirelessly to insure that consumption of water for humans is much more important than species downstream."

Cagle said he supports the efforts of Gov. Sonny Perdue and has been talking with the governor and his staff as the situation has deteriorated.

"He (Perdue) is deeply concerned and is willing to do everything within his power to insure every single citizen is protected in this state," Cagle said.

The motion for preliminary injunction will be filed this week, seeking an immediate modification of the water flows leaving Georgia reservoirs to flow downstream intended to provide roughly double the amount of water for endangered mussel and sturgeon species than that which would be provided by nature under these circumstances.

In June 2006, the state of Georgia sued the corps over its operating plan which calls for the imprudent releases of water from Georgia’s reservoirs at levels which threaten Georgia’s human population and do not have scientific justification for the downstream endangered species.



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