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Georgia wins major ruling in water wars case
Lake Lanier

Georgia has won a landmark ruling against Florida in a U.S. Supreme Court case over water sharing in a basin the two states share with Alabama.

A Maine lawyer presiding over the case rejected Florida’s attempts to set limits on Georgia’s consumption of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which includes Lake Lanier in the headwaters.

“Florida has failed to show that a consumption cap will afford adequate relief,” Ralph I. Lancaster Jr. wrote in a 70-page ruling issued Tuesday.

The ruling is a recommendation to the Supreme Court, which will make the final determination.

Further, testimony and evidence during the 5-week trial this past fall showed the Army Corps of Engineers “can likely offset increased stream flow in the Flint River by storing additional water in its reservoirs along the Chattahoochee River during dry periods.”

Lancaster said the corps, which is putting final touches on a water operations manual for the basin, “retains extensive discretion in the operation of those federal reservoirs.

“As a result, the corps can release (or not release) water largely as it sees fit,” he said.

The corps isn’t a party to the lawsuit, Lancaster noted, so “the court cannot order the corps to take any particular action.”

A statement released by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s office said he and Attorney General Chris Carr are encouraged by Lancaster’s recommendation.

“We are encouraged by this outcome, which puts us closer to finding a resolution to a decades-long dispute over the use and management of the waters of the basin,” Deal said.

Lancaster’s decision “is a major step toward securing a victory for Georgia citizens,” Carr said.

Clyde Morris, attorney for Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association, said he found interesting that Lancaster didn’t say anything about metro Atlanta’s water consumption.

“I think that’s a big win for Lake Lanier and metro Atlanta and North Georgia,” he said.

In the latest “water wars” salvo between the three states that started in 1990, Florida had accused Georgia of “overconsumption” of water, leading to the collapse of the oyster industry in the Florida’s Apalachicola Bay on the Gulf of Mexico.

“The region also contains historic communities, whose social well-being is intrinsically linked with the health and sustainability of the ecosystem and who rely economically upon Apalachicola Bay’s oyster, shrimp and other fisheries, the production of tupelo honey and tourism,” Florida had charged.

And though Alabama had nothing at stake in the fight, it sided with Florida, to the point that it has threatened to sue if Lancaster suggests interbasin water transfers that involve Alabama without first consulting the state.

In a Jan. 3 order, Lancaster urged Georgia and Florida to consider interbasin transfers in settlement talks. His Tuesday ruling only refers to the ACF basin.

Lake Lanier has long been a flashpoint in the tri-state struggle, as ever-growing metro Atlanta pulls its drinking water from the reservoir that hugs Hall County’s boundaries.

The other major hot spot is Apalachicola Bay.

“There is little question that Florida has suffered harm from decreased flows in the River,” Lancaster said in his ruling. “It also appears that Georgia’s upstream agricultural water use has been — and continues to be — largely unrestrained.”

But that’s not the issue at stake, he said.

“Regardless of the harm suffered by Florida and the unreasonableness of Georgia’s agricultural water use, it is necessary to determine whether the activities of the corps render uncertain any relief to Florida,” Lancaster said.

Morris said he was encouraged to see Lancaster mention that recreation was one of Lanier’s purposes when it was created in the 1950s.

“It’s good to finally see somebody in the highest court in the land reflecting that,” he said. “But I can’t say (the lake association) is going to be expecting that all litigation has now come to a close.”