The U.S. Supreme Court may be the next stop for Georgia's longtime water standoff with two of its neighbors.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta rejected a request Friday from Alabama and Florida, which had asked the full court to reconsider a ruling from a three-judge panel that handed metro Atlanta a major victory in a feud over water rights.
Then, on Monday, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said his state will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take on the case.
"That would be fully expected," said Kelly Randall, Gainesville's public utilities director. "I would expect all of those folks — Alabama, Florida, the power customers — to do that. That's the next step.
"But I don't know why one would think the Supreme Court would hear the case if the circuit court decided not to, but I'll guess we'll just have to wait and see."
Attorneys at Florida's Department of Environmental Protection were still reviewing their legal options Monday and would not comment, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Diaz said.
Litigation between the three states hit a major milestone on June 28, when the circuit court reversed a July 2009 decision that would have severely hamstrung Hall County and much of metro Atlanta from withdrawing water from the lake.
Judge Paul Magnuson's 2009 decision, affecting some 3 million people, imposed a three-year deadline for Georgia to find another source of water, have Congress reauthorize Lanier as a specially designated source of drinking water or negotiate a water-sharing agreement with Florida and Alabama.
The circuit court's decision stated that Congress always intended for the lake to be used as a source of drinking water for the Atlanta area and that previous decisions that said otherwise, including Magnuson's ruling, were based on "a clear error of law."
Alabama and Florida promptly filed appeals.
Their rejection "is very good for Georgia," said Lewis Jones of Atlanta's King & Spalding law firm, which has represented Atlanta, the Atlanta Regional Commission and other local governments in the matter.
"It confirms that water use is a fully authorized purpose of Lake Lanier. That's the right decision, and we've known that all along.
Alabama and Florida were expected to "try to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court," Jones said.
"You don't get to take an appeal just because you want to," he added. "You have to apply to the Supreme Court for permission and ... these requests are very rarely granted.
"Even if the appeal were accepted, I believe that the opinion of the 11th Circuit would be confirmed by the (Supreme Court) because it is thoroughly reasoned and correct. But I don't think we're going to get to that stage because I see no reason the Supreme Court would take this appeal."
John Fortuna, also of King & Spalding, said it could be months before the Supreme Court could decide whether to take on the appeal.
Val Perry, executive vice president of Lake Lanier Association, a Gainesville-based advocacy organization, said he believes the circuit court's actions will help Georgia economically.
"I think a lot of people were saying that if Georgia doesn't have water, businesses won't come here," he said.
Before Alabama had announced its intentions on Monday, Perry said he was hoping further appeals would end.
"I think we need to focus on the water control plan that the (U.S. Army) Corps (of Engineers) has been directed by this court to put together and to consider water supply," Perry said.
"We can look forward to a year from now having a water plan that we can all salute and work with," he added.
Associated Press contributed to this report.