The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now says it has the authority to allow Georgians to withdraw as much as 297 million gallons of Lake Lanier’s water daily.
Whether it will use its power to grant that supply is another question.
Georgia, in 2000, asked the corps to set aside that amount for drinking water, plus another 408 million gallons for Atlanta to withdraw below Buford Dam.
The proposal includes returning at least 107 million gallons of treated wastewater back to Lanier each day. The withdrawal request has been at the core of litigation between Georgia, Florida and Alabama, according to Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens.
Corps officials said Tuesday that with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this week to stay out of the tri-state water dispute between Alabama, Florida and Georgia, it now feels it has the authority to consider the request.
Already, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, which authorizes surface water withdrawals in the state, allows as much as 214 million gallons of water to be pulled from Lake Lanier on a given day.
The allowance is for a maximum day and doesn’t reflect actual withdrawals, however, according to EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers.
The corps, which manages water flow in the basin, said withdrawals from Lanier average about 136 million gallons of water each day.
Another 325 million gallons per day are pulled from the Chattahoochee River downstream of Lanier on average.
Whether that access to Lanier’s water will continue depends on a pending update of the water control manual for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.
A corps official said the update will resume in the next three months.
The manual determines how much water from the river system can be used for water supply among other needs, like power generation and protection of endangered species.
Its update had been on hold pending resolutions in court.
“It’s important to note that this legal opinion only addresses whether the corps has the legal authority to operate the project to accommodate Georgia’s request,” said E. Patrick Robbins, a public affairs officer for the corps’ Mobile district offices.
“It does not in any manner indicate the corps must, should or will exercise its discretion to operate the project to meet the request.”
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday said it would let a 2011 ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals stand.
A panel from the appeals court had overturned a 2009 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson that Lake Lanier was never intended to be used as a source of water supply. The ruling had threatened to severely limit access to Lanier that cities and counties in the metro Atlanta area had used to support exponential growth over the last 50 years.
Currently, the cities of Gainesville, Cumming and Buford have permission to withdraw water from Lanier for drinking purposes. Forsyth and Gwinnett counties are also permitted to pull from the lake.
Atlanta takes water from the Chattahoochee below Buford Dam.
The appeals court, in its ruling last year, also gave the corps a year to re-evaluate how water should be delegated in the basin, which corps officials said Tuesday the agency now has the authority to do.
Olens applauded the corps’ decision, saying it cleared “the way for real predictability and certainty for Georgia’s water resources.”
“Finally, the state and its neighbors can put decades of litigation behind them and find ways to work together in meeting rooms instead of facing off in courtrooms,” Olens said in a statement.
The Supreme Court’s decision to stay out of the tristate conflict over the basin should give the state enough security to rethink its plans to build several reservoirs, said Executive Director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Sally Bethea.
“Now that metro Atlanta’s future water needs can be met from Lake Lanier, there is no legitimate need for taxpayers to pay anything to build more reservoirs,” Bethea said in an email.
But Gov. Nathan Deal and others weren’t ready to say that the week’s decisions were the end of Georgia’s search for water security.
Deal has promised to spend some $300 million before the end of his term on water supply projects.
His chief of staff Chris Riley said the governor’s plans are still the same.
“We’ve had two very good days,” Riley said of the Supreme Court and the corps’ decisions. “But today’s decision from the corps basically says that yes, they do have the authorization to allocate — it doesn’t say at what levels they will allocate.”
Georgia, Riley said, still faces a “big hurdle” when it comes to securing Lanier as a source of water for metro Atlanta. But even if Georgia’s request is granted in full, Riley said the state will still need more capacity.
“We will continue to put money towards additional capacity to come online,” Riley said. “It’s going to be required.”
Hall County officials are in the midst of a lengthy permitting process for a future reservoir that is proposed to augment water supply for an existing reservoir.
Their proposal for Glades Reservoir, which if permitted would be an 850-acre lake upstream of Lanier on Flat Creek, could provide as much as 80 million gallons of water per day.
One estimate for building it exceeds $300 million.
Originally, plans for Glades called for about one-tenth of the capacity, but county officials expanded the proposal after the now-defunct Magnuson ruling.
But on Tuesday, Hall County Commissioner Billy Powell said county officials are still committed to the permitting process.
The permit to build Glades, Powell said, is “critical” in the county’s ability to control the future of its water resources.
County officials have already spent more than $11 million trying to get the permit.
“The permit is good for 10 years,” Powell said. “So after we get the permit, we’ll make the decision about whether we need to go ahead with the construction at that point.”
Corps officials in Savannah in charge of permitting the North Hall reservoir were not specific Tuesday about how the recent decisions could impact permitting for Glades.
Spokeswoman Tracy Robillard said officials at the Savannah district will continue to move forward with an Environmental Impact Statement for the reservoir proposal, coordinating with officials in Mobile throughout the process.
She did not say, however, whether the Mobile district’s update of the water control manual for the basin would impact the timing of a permit for Glades.
A permit to build Glades depends upon the environmental impact statement corps officials are preparing now.
A draft of the statement is expected to be released later this year.