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Ruling that limits water withdrawal stuns supporters of Lake Lanier
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The city of Gainesville withdraws between 18 and 20 million gallons of water a day from Lake Lanier. - photo by Tom Reed

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Jackie Joseph, president of Lake Lanier Association, reacts to a federal judge’s ruling concerning Lake Lanier’s water uses.

Area lake advocates expressed shock and disappointment Monday over a federal judge’s ruling last week that the withdrawal of drinking water was not the primary force in Lake
Lanier’s creation.

One of the staunchest groups, Lake Lanier Association, had filed legal briefs supporting Georgia’s assertion that Lake Lanier could be used to store water for municipal purposes.

"It is the general feeling, in talking with some of our members, that we’re in a bit of quandary of which way to go," said Jackie Joseph, president of Lake Lanier Association. "We’re going to talk, of course, to our attorney and determine what needs to be done.

"Truthfully, negotiating with the states again, as suggested, ... is not necessarily going to be fruitful. We have attempted that before and I don’t know if that’s ... an avenue that’s going to be productive for us."

U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson wrote in a 97-page order issued Friday that Atlanta has three years to win congressional approval to keep withdrawing drinking water from the lake.

"The court realizes this is a draconian result," said Magnuson, of St. Paul, Minn., who was selected to preside over the case in 2007. "It is, however, the only result that recognizes how far the operation of the Buford project has strayed from the original authorization."

The judge wrote that when Buford Dam was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1957, "the corps consistently described the primary purpose of the project as flood control, navigation and hydropower."

The corps determined in 1975 that Gainesville and Buford were entitled to withdraw 10 million gallons of water a day, as they were congressionally approved to use the water because their previous water intake structures on the Chattahoochee River were inundated by Lake Lanier.

But in the early 1970s, the corps began allowing other municipalities to withdraw water from the lake on what it then characterized as "interim" contracts, the judge wrote.

As recently as the late 1980s, the corps acknowledged "that allowing water-supply withdrawals from the lake was not an authorized purpose of the project and would require Congress’ approval," the judge wrote.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has said he would appeal.

"Obviously, a lot has changed in this region (over the years)," said Grier Todd, who chairs the 1071 Coalition lake advocacy group. "You build reservoirs and you build lakes, and you say drinking water is not one of the purposes of what you do just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense."

Todd, who is also chief operating officer of Lake Lanier Islands Resort, said he is hopeful that "at some point and time, reason and just plain common sense will take over."

Joseph said she expects that counties and cities affected by the ruling "will probably join in" as Georgia appeals the ruling. She added that she believes Gainesville and Buford still have a stake in the fight, as their permits allow for much more water than they did in the mid-1970s.

Joseph also believes Georgia may lack some leverage if it goes the congressional route.

"From what I understand, Florida and Alabama have more clout in Congress than we do because, No. 1, they have more representation," she said.

Florida and Alabama have been engaged in an 18-year legal struggle with Georgia over the water that flows from Lanier into the Chattahoochee and on to the Flint and Apalachicola rivers.

Kit Dunlap, president of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said that Gainesville-Hall may have been spared the full brunt of the ruling, "but what’s not good for counties surrounding us or the state also affects us too."

Georgia still needs to try to resolve the issue with Florida and Alabama, she added.

"But I don’t have much faith (in that), particularly when the governors of those two states ... have come out blasting Georgia," Dunlap said.

She said she believes that the 1071 Coalition, a nonprofit group formed last year with the main focus of promoting healthy lake levels, also needs to focus on "what is the value of Lake Lanier."

"(It’s) not only for recreation and all that other stuff, but (also) water supply," Dunlap said.

Dunlap, who also chairs the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, added that Georgia "is a leader in water planning."

"We understand the importance of water in the future and conservation."

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