It appears everything is coming full circle in a now-closed chapter of the decades-long water wars between Georgia, Florida and Alabama.
Lake Lanier water storage contracts that ignited litigation in the early 1990s might finally be formalized as part of an agreement between Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers.
A contract with the Army Corps of Engineers to allow Georgia to pay $60 million for permanent water storage on Lake Lanier could come “any day now,” Richard Dunn, Environmental Protection Division director, said at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors’ meeting Thursday, Nov. 21.
“That contract is sitting with the secretary of the Army,” he said. “I thought it would be done by this summer. It will be a big day for Georgia when we can sign that. It’ll be an even bigger day when we can actually pay it off.”
The 254,170 acres of storage space would meet the state’s current and projected 2050 municipal and industrial water supply, Dunn said.
The lake has 38,425 acres of surface water, but 1.1 million acres of overall storage, according to the DNR. One acre of water 1 foot deep equals about 326,000 gallons, according to the Water Education Foundation.
Dunn noted, however, that Georgia “will not be in the water supply business. We’re going to turn around and subcontract with water supply providers to have access to that storage.”
Each of the providers, including Gainesville, would pay for their proportionate share of the water supply, Dunn said.
The only formal contracts concerning water supply date to the late 1950s, when Lake Lanier was created, with Gainesville allowed to draw 8 million gallons of water per day and Buford allowed to withdraw 2 million gallons, he said.
In the late 1980s, in response to growth in Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, the Corps proposed to make their water withdrawals “formally part of a storage contract between the Corps and these (governments),” Dunn said.
The proposal was challenged by Alabama and later, Florida.
“In the interim, while the litigation was going on, water supply providers continued to withdraw from the lake to meet their needs — albeit without formal contracts,” Dunn said.
Water storage talks between Georgia and the Corps began in 2017, after the Corps approved Georgia’s request to reallocate the storage space among water suppliers.
“This was a huge, huge deal,” Dunn said. “Outside of those contracts (with Gainesville and Buford), metro Atlanta’s ability for water supply providers to withdraw water from the lake was tenuous, at best.”
The Corps took the 2017 action after the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court judge ruling that water supply was not one of Lanier’s original authorized uses.
In 2012, The U.S. Supreme Court effectively upheld the appellate court’s decision by denying requests by Alabama and Florida’s requests to review the 11th Circuit’s ruling.
Legal issues have flared up again, with Florida suing Georgia over what it deems as “overconsumption” of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin shared by the two states and Alabama. The focus is agricultural water use in southwest Georgia.
A special master has been tasked with making a recommendation to the Supreme Court in that case.