It looks like Christmas has come early for Georgia’s long-term water needs.
Army Corps of Engineers documents released this week show the agency has granted state requests for 242 million gallons per day in gross withdrawals from Lake Lanier and releases from Buford Dam to support downstream withdrawals of up to 379 million gallons per day.
The corps says it also is complying with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2013 order, which authorized 705 million gallons per day in withdrawals “without jeopardizing downstream needs,” Georgia Department of Natural Resources spokesman Kevin Chambers said.
By comparison, the withdrawals in 2011 were 115 million gallons per day from Lanier and 246 million gallons downstream from Buford Dam.
Basically, the corps “is giving the metro Atlanta region the amount of water that they have requested through 2050 — either from Lake Lanier directly or from the Chattahoochee downstream from Buford Dam,” said Jason Ulseth of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.
“We are pleased that the corps did revise the manual to incorporate newer population projections in Georgia, which is much lower than previously anticipated,” Ulseth said. “This also removed the need for Glades Reservoir.”
Earlier this year, Hall County suspended its permitting application for the proposed 850-acre North Hall reservoir to give officials time to re-evaluate the project and its need.
Overall, the water picture “looks good for Lake Lanier and us right now,” said Kit Dunlap, Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce president and CEO.
“We’ll kind of digest (corps documents) a little bit more and see,” added Dunlap, who serves on the North Georgia Metropolitan Water Planning District’s governing board.
Katherine Zitsch, natural resources division manager for the Atlanta Regional Commission, expressed similar glee Thursday.
“We are pleased that the long-term water supply needs of the Atlanta region will be met, as having a secure source of water is incredibly important to metro Atlanta's future,” she said.
“The Metro Water District is mindful that these precious resources are shared and is proud of our aggressive water conservation efforts that have dramatically decreased water usage in the region.”
The withdrawal amounts are part of the corps’ efforts to complete a final Environmental Impact Statement and Water Control Manual for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which straddles Georgia, Alabama and Florida and includes Lake Lanier in the headwaters.
The long-awaited water control manual, which was released Wednesday, covers operations in the basin, including drought plans, authorized uses and storage capacities.
“It looks like a workable manual for Georgia,” said Chris Riley, Gov. Nathan Deal’s chief of staff, adding that Deal’s office is still reviewing details.
The environmental impact document is a more detailed look at water withdrawals and their impacts on the basin.
The corps “evaluated an array of potential water management and water supply storage alternatives during the (manual) update process,” spokesman E. Patrick Robbins said.
During the process, the corps developed a document, Proposed Action Alternative, which addresses water supply provisions, among other water issues.
Under this document, the corps “would continue to operate the ACF as a system in a balanced manner to achieve all authorized project purposes,” Robbins said.
It also addressed the appellate court case, which concerned whether Georgia could even tap into Lanier for water. A three-judge panel ruled in Georgia’s favor, finding that government water withdrawals were an authorized use.
That was a significant victory for Georgia in what had been — and still is — a longstanding water-sharing dispute with Alabama and Florida.
Florida later fired another shot in the “water wars” by filing a suit in U.S. Supreme Court alleging Georgia had “overconsumed” water in the basin, causing an ecological disaster in the Apalachicola Bay.
A monthlong trial between the states ended Dec. 1 with a special master imploring both sides to negotiate a settlement.
Special master Ralph Lancaster reminded both parties that there’s much to be lost by booming metropolitan Atlanta or by residents of tiny Apalachicola, Fla.
“Please settle this blasted thing,” Lancaster said. “I can guarantee you that at least one of you is going to be unhappy with my recommendation — and perhaps both of you.”
Lancaster was appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court to make a recommendation to resolve the matter. The Supreme Court will have the final say in the coming year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.