Local water experts were still deciding what to make of a ruling made in the tri-state water wars Wednesday.
A federal judge declined Florida’s request to release more water from Lake Lanier’s Buford Dam to protect three threatened or endangered species downstream.
The Wednesday ruling from U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson rejected releasing more water from dams along the Chattahoochee River to benefit the gulf sturgeon, the fat threeridge mussel and the purple bankclimber mussel.
The news caught many water experts and river advocates off guard Wednesday.
“That came out of left field,” said Gil Rogers, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Both Kelly Randall, the director of Gainesville’s Public Utilities Department, and Sally Bethea, the executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said they had not had time to fully review the ruling Wednesday afternoon.
Randall did see, though, that Florida’s endangered species argument had been shot down, which he said was encouraging for Georgia’s interest in the water flowing down the Chattahoochee River.
“I’m encouraged that the (U.S.) Army (Corps of Engineers) will be able to move forward and really provide water for all uses, and you know, protect all the species but not have some arbitrary number set that they have to meet,” Randall said.
But Wednesday’s ruling does not change an earlier decision from Magnuson that Gainesville and metro Atlanta have little legal right to drinking water from Lake Lanier.
The judge has said he will severely restrict Atlanta’s use of that reservoir in 2012 unless political leaders in Georgia, Alabama and Florida reach a deal to end 30 years of fighting over water usage.
In his ruling, the judge said Florida failed to prove that the federal wildlife officials ignored any evidence in deciding how much water Georgia should release downstream to support Florida’s endangered species.
“They merely contend that the ultimate conclusion is incorrect,” the judge wrote of Florida’s attorneys.
A spokesman for Florida Gov. Charlie Crist did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Though Rogers, who specializes in clean water policy for the Southern Environmental Law Center, had only spent a short amount of time reviewing the ruling, he said the winners seem to be the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
If any state won, he said, it was Alabama.
“The court really focuses on the National Environmental Policy Act, and the fact that the Corps of Engineers has really violated that act, but the court declines to do anything about that violation,” Rogers said.
Since the corps is updating its water control manuals for the Chattahoochee River, Magnuson chose not to act on the corps’ violation of the act. Instead, he said it should be addressed in environmental studies performed in the writing of the new manuals, which he said was much of Alabama’s argument in hearings on the matter.
“It gives a warning shot to the Corps of Engineers just to get its act together moving forward with this new study, basically saying it needs to look at all alternatives to water supply in the Atlanta area, because that affects the overall operation of the river system,” Rogers said.
Increasing the amount of water reaching Florida would mean releasing more water from reservoirs in Georgia — a nonstarter for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. His spokesman, Bert Brantley, said releasing more water “would have put an incredible strain on Georgia communities” and the millions who depend on the water supply.
Brantley said the decision will allow the governors of Georgia, Alabama and Florida to focus on a water-sharing agreement without having to worry about the endangered species issue complicating the negotiations.
“This was a total victory for Georgia and it means this side issue — this distracting issue of endangered species claims — is resolved,” Brantley said.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said the judge’s ruling shows the Army Corps of Engineers failed to conduct a proper environmental analysis of the water issue. His state wants an appellate court to uphold Magnuson’s ruling restricting Atlanta’s tapping of Lake Lanier.
“The law is clear that Lake Lanier cannot be used for water supply without congressional approval,” Riley said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.