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Advocacy group jumps on pile
Lake Lanier Association seeks money for legal action against Corps of Engineers
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The Lake Lanier Association is planning to take legal action against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the lake’s sinking water level.

Val Perry, vice president of the lake advocacy group, said the association feels left out of the legal battle between the corps and the governors of Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

"If we’re not there at the table, nobody is going to be speaking for the lake," he said.

After Gov. Sonny Perdue filed a preliminary injunction against the corps on Oct. 19, the association filed a memorandum of law to join the suit. But after the three governors met with Interior Department officials in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 1, a tentative agreement was announced, and Perdue withdrew his injunction against the corps.

"That eliminated our ability to participate," Perry said.

The group wants to either join an existing lawsuit or file its own legal action against the corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which they allege is misusing the Endangered Species Act.

To pay for the expected legal expenses, the association is soliciting contributions from its membership and from anyone who owns a home or dock on Lanier.

The group is still paying off a $650,000 legal bill from its lawsuit against Gwinnett County’s wastewater discharge permit in 2000. That battle lasted six years and was resolved only after the case went to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Perry said the association hopes to avoid major litigation this time. "We may file a separate legal challenge if we have to, but we’d prefer not to do that because it’s very expensive," he said.

The lake association was part of an earlier, ongoing lawsuit against the corps that attorneys are referring to as "Georgia 1." The group wants to be involved in the most recent legal action, dubbed "Georgia 2."

"If we can’t be a party to that, we hope they will merge Georgia 1 and Georgia 2 together," Perry said. "It’s silly to have these different lawsuits when they’re all being heard by the same judge and involve the same parties."

The group’s attorney is planning to attend a Monday status conference in Jacksonville, Fla., with Judge Paul Magnuson, who has been appointed to handle the tri-state water cases.

Meanwhile, Perdue’s injunction against the corps is in limbo. When the Georgia governor announced Nov. 6 that he was withdrawing the injunction, he said he was "optimistic that this matter can be resolved outside of a courtroom."

But that optimism may have been premature. A few days later, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist seemed to back away from the idea of reducing water flow in the Apalachicola River, which is connected to Lake Lanier via the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.

Perdue spokesman Marshall Guest said Wednesday that the injunction against the corps could be reactivated.

"The governor did say he retained the right to file the motion again," Guest said. "We’ll see what happens (Thursday), and we still look forward to meeting (with the other two governors) in Tallahassee on Dec. 12."

Today, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is expected to release a biological opinion on how much water is needed in the Apalachicola River below Woodruff Dam.

Currently, the corps is maintaining a flow of 5,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) in order to support endangered mussels downstream. But no one knows if 5,000 cfs is really how much the animals need to survive. For the past few weeks, Fish & Wildlife biologists have been studying the mussels, trying to come up with a more accurate estimate.

At the Nov. 1 meeting in Washington, the governors indicated that a flow of 4,200 cfs, a 16 percent reduction from the current amount, would be acceptable.

Perry believes that level is still too high, and that about 3,000 cfs is needed in order to keep more water in Lanier.

"My understanding is that 4,200 is the only number Fish & Wildlife is looking at," he said. "That will not be enough. It will continue to drain the lake; it just does it a little slower."

Ultimately, Perry believes the 17-year "water war" can only be resolved through the legal system.

"The governors are not going to solve this," he said. "So far, no state has sued another. They’ve all sued the corps, and the corps is just doing what it’s told. I think if the states sued each other, it would have to go to the (U.S.) Supreme Court."

But nobody wants that, because the case could be tied up in the Supreme Court for years. Perry hopes common sense will prevail, and he wishes the South could learn to handle water issues as other regions have done.

"Out West, they manage with a lot less water than we have. They get it done," he said. "We ought to be able to pull that off."