A federal judge has tabled any decisions regarding federal water rights to focus on the fate of endangered species in the Appalachola River.
Tuesday’s hearing in Jacksonville, Fla., is the latest development in a long-running battle over water between Georgia, Florida and Alabama. The duel has escalated since federal Judge Paul Magnuson ruled last year that Georgia had little legal right to draw drinking water from Lake Lanier, metro Atlanta’s main water source.
Magnuson’s ruling last July was the first in a two-part lawsuit. The second phase will address whether endangered mussels and sturgeons stand to be further compromised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan, which calls for minimum water flow from Lake Lanier.
Attorneys for the corps argued that the group had worked closely with the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the threatened animals.
At the hearing, each side presented its case on how much water should go downstream from Lanier and the Chattahoochee River and into the Appalachicola in case of severe drought to protect endangered species.
Gainesville Public Utilities Director Kelly Randall was in Jacksonville for the briefing.
The city has been involved in the tri-state water war for nearly a decade and is among the Georgia parties listed in the lawsuit.
“The bottom line on whoever prevails is the minimum flow out of the Woodruff Dam (at Lake Seminole) was set at 5,000 cubic feet per second. Florida thinks that number should be higher. The United States and Georgia think that number is adequate and should even be lower,” Randall said. “It’s a situation you’re only talking about ever occurring in some ridiculously extreme drought like what occurred in 2006 and 2007.”
Georgia believes that the current flow is a fair amount to sustain endangered species.
“Before there were any dams at all, the historical flows were considerably below 5,000 cubic feet per second,” Randall said. “They’re asking for flows at the state line that are considerably higher than if there were no dams at all. That’s kind of the argument.”
Andy Smith, executive director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, attended the hearing and said during the four-hour hearing, Magnuson was “in the corps’ face,” chastising its leaders for “putting off” the water-sharing problems between the three states.
“He was very strong about that,” Smith said.
Magnuson also told each party that his mandate was to interpret the law, and that his ruling in Phase II would not include direction for the legislative or executive branches of government on how to form an environmental impact statement or a biological opinion, Smith said.
Magnuson also said that how the 11th Circuit rules on Georgia’s appeal of his July ruling would determine how he rules in Phase II, Smith said. Oral arguments for the appeal are July 27.
Smith said Georgia’s argument for an all-encompassing environmental impact statement lined up with the desires of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper.
“What we want ... is the most robust and far-reaching environmental impact statement ever,” he said. “That’s what we want, a robust statement that considers what’s happening downstream, that considers what’s happening in the ecological systems of the Flint and the Chattahoochee (rivers).”
“We’ve got to sit down at the table and understand what we’ve got, then we’ve got to understand the demands for it and then we can decide how to divvy it up. ... But everybody’s varied interest in the litigation prevents folks from sitting down and doing that.”
Smith said he suspected the judge would not do anything. And if the judge did anything it would be to rule in Florida’s favor on the Endangered Species Act claim.
“I’m not convinced he’s going to do that,” said Smith.
Randall said he was pleased with the case presented by Georgia’s attorneys.
“I think they did a good job today. We’ll just have to see how it turns out,” Randall said. “You won’t know what it really means for us until the judge rules.”
Staff writer Ashley Fielding and and the Associated Press contributed to this story.