The U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal Monday to intervene in a tristate water dispute between Alabama, Georgia and Florida marked an abrupt end to a long-standing, costly legal feud.
The justices’ decision to not hear appeals by Alabama and Florida meant that a ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta still stands.
The appeals court overturned looming restrictions on Lanier as a water source and ruled that Atlanta has a legal claim to the water. Alabama, Florida and communities in South Georgia have argued that Atlanta uses too much water, harming wildlife, people and industries downstream.
Gov. Nathan Deal claimed victory upon hearing the Supreme Court’s decision.
“By denying a hearing of the decision of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in the tristate water case, the nation’s highest court has affirmed that drinking water was always an authorized use of Lake Lanier,” Deal said.
“We felt confident in the firm grounding of the 11th Circuit ruling. We can now move forward with this issue behind us, have the governors work together and come to a long-term agreement that will provide for the water needs of all three states.”
The governors of neighboring Alabama and Florida were not ready to concede. While the last ruling strengthened Atlanta’s hand, it did not by itself address all the issues in the long-running dispute.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s office characterized the decision Monday as “just one step on a long road.”
“There are many critical issues related to reliable river flows still to be decided, and Alabama will continue to fight to ensure that downstream communities receive the amount of water to which they are entitled under federal law,” said a statement issued by Bentley’s spokesman Jeremy King.
Joanna Cloud, executive director of the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association, said her group expected the decision but is happy now “to see it in print.”
“I think this is the end of the road in terms of drinking water authorization,” she said. “This pretty much puts the lid on that question. We know that Lanier is now authorized for drinking water purposes, and that authorization ranks just as high in priority as the other authorized purposes.
“That’s been the question that’s been hovering all along: Does drinking water take as much a priority as, say, downstream navigation? And the answer is yes. It doesn’t indicate that it would take more of a priority at this point, but at least it has to be considered as one of the main purposes of Lanier.”
Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, also welcomed the news.
“I think that’s what the Georgia folks felt like would happen,” she said. “We’ll see what happens next ... but (the ruling) doesn’t solve the issues yet. Maybe it makes a stronger statement that we can do some further negotiations with Alabama and Florida.
“Maybe (talks) will move forward in a more positive manner, I hope, for Georgia,” said Dunlap, also a member of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District’s Governing Board.
Clyde Morris, attorney for the Lake Lanier Association, said that the issue of whether Lake Lanier was authorized for drinking water “has been put to rest.”
However, the 11th Circuit left open “the issue of how much authority for storage” that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has under federal law, he said.
“We expect the U.S. Justice Department to provide that legal opinion back to the court sometime this week,” said E. Patrick Robbins, spokesman for the corps’ Mobile District.
“Once it is issued, the water control manual process should resume sometime later this year.”
The corps is drawing up a water management plan for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin, which includes Lake Lanier.
“That could start a whole round of machinations from Florida, Alabama and the Southeastern Federal Power Customers, as well,” Morris said. “We’ll just have to see how that all comes down.”
Sally Bethea, executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said, “We have long said that we needed to get out of the courtroom and into meeting rooms, where we can work out a water-sharing agreement that meets the needs of all users up and down the ACF basin.”
She also wasn’t surprised by the court’s decision.
“We have always felt the resolution would have to come by people sitting down and looking at a fair and equitable way to share what is a limited resource in this river basin,” Bethea said.