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Political battles are next clouds on Laniers horizon
State leaders seek relief from courts, Congress while seeking new water sources
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Lake Lanier is rising — into a sea of controversy.

The lake exceeded its full pool elevation of 1,071 feet above sea level Wednesday morning. And while the moment was a reassuring reminder that the region’s historic drought has ended, it changed nothing about the fact that, in less than three years, Georgia may lose much of its ability to withdraw water from the reservoir that supplies water to Hall County and much of metro Atlanta.

State legislators are no longer meeting Gov. Sonny Perdue on the steps of the state Capitol to pray for rains that would rejuvenate the reservoir. Instead, they are now faced with a federal ruling that requires the state to come up with a Plan B that sustains the region.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled in July that water withdrawal was never a congressionally authorized use of Lake Lanier. The ruling gives Georgia three years to come up with a water-sharing plan with Alabama and Florida or stop using the reservoir for water consumption or have Congress reauthorize the lake’s use.

Magnuson’s ruling does leave Hall County with some water rights to the lake, but would severely restrict the county’s reliance on the reservoir.

Absent a successful appeal of the ruling, state legislators will spend the next few years writing contingency plans for the region.

"Time is of the essence," said State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville. "We only have until July 17 of 2012 to finalize everything."

Without the right to use the lake, each municipality will have to make crucial choices, said state Sen. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville.

Hawkins, who is a candidate to represent the state’s 9th Congressional District in the U.S. House, said he fears that Hall County may have to decide between water for human use and water for industrial use.

"We’re going to have to make a decision of humans over industry and we should not be put in that position," Hawkins said. "That’s wrong."

But Hawkins seems confident that the state "will work through this."

Much of the dealings in what has been dubbed the tri-state water wars — the decades-long string of lawsuits between Georgia, Alabama and Florida over rights to two major river basins — is out of state legislators’ hands.

But legislators say they will work to find, and permit, alternate water resources across the region.

State Rep. Doug Collins said the legislature has laid the groundwork to make conservation and supplementing the state’s water supply a priority.

Both he and Hawkins point to legislation passed in 2008 that tightens deadlines for the state Environmental Protection Division to approve state permits and federal reservoir application packages.

But Collins concedes that, though the permitting process has been streamlined, finances are a hindrance.

"I think right now, it’s just a matter of being able to stay the course," Collins said. "And I think we got hit right now not only with the drought, but with the court ruling, and we also got hit with a recession, that, 2« years ago nobody was talking about. Two-and-a-half years ago, we were looking at ‘what do we do with the surplus?’"

Rogers recalled the last time the state put money aside for the construction of a reservoir — money was an issue then, too.

"Several years ago we had $50 million cash to do that," Rogers said. "With the budget woes we had to pull those dollars away."

Rogers said the state is now hoping that more cities and counties will seek out their own funding for alternate water sources. But even those efforts may be stymied by future litigation with Alabama and Florida, he said.

"We’re full ... and that will diminish the immediacy of the need (for water)," Collins said. "However, the court ruling has made it incumbent upon all of us to look for solutions that we didn’t have to look for before."