ATLANTA — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has issued an opinion saying that it has the legal authority to supply metro Atlanta’s drinking water from Lake Lanier.
Florida and Alabama still disagree, and continue to pursue the case in court.
The opinion by the corps, which manages regional water resources, was welcomed by Atlanta leaders as a federal judge prepares to decide whether Congress should parse out how the lake’s water is used.
Corps attorney Earl Stockdale’s opinion says that setting aside about 12 percent of the lake for drinking water would have only minor effects on the project’s goals to produce hydropower, control floods and float barges.
The 38,000-acre reservoir is at the center of a long-running battle involving Georgia, Alabama and Florida over who gets a greater share of the water.
The Lake Lanier Association, a Gainesville-based advocacy group, is a party to the lawsuit addressed in the corps attorney’s memorandum. The suit, known as “Southeastern Power Customers v. Geren,” is one of seven currently waiting to be heard in federal courts.
Val Perry, vice president of the association, said Stockdale’s opinion gives him hope.
“It’s too early to tell if it will help our case,” he said. “We don’t know all the details or how far-reaching this is, or what the implications will be for the other six cases.”
Perry said the association’s attorney is still trying to sort out exactly what the corps’ legal opinion might mean for Georgia.
“What we do know,” Perry said, “is that this certainly can’t harm us.”
Florida and Alabama asked a federal court to stop the corps from supplying water from Lake Lanier. The states argue the withdrawals are illegal without congressional approval, and planned to file a motion in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville on Friday to invalidate the corps’ operations of the lake.
The motion comes two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower-court ruling that said the corps needed congressional approval before reaching a 2003 agreement to give Georgia even more water from Lanier in the coming decades.
Emboldened by the decision, Florida and Alabama say that rationale should also apply to Georgia’s current withdrawals.
Georgia maintains it needs more water to serve a rapidly growing population, while Florida and Alabama argue that the state’s withdrawals harm their downstream interests, chiefly power generation and seafood harvesting.
Judge Paul A. Magnuson, a senior U.S. District Court Judge from Minnesota, is overseeing combined lawsuits involving the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin. He has said that he will take up the question of Lanier’s authorized uses first when hearings in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville begin later this year.