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Editorial: Court ruling due in the wake of the flood
Heavy rains after recent drought put water issues back in spotlight
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The Olympic tower at Lake Lanier Olympic Park is surrounded by water in Gainesville on Wednesday, May 30, 2018, after heavy rain. - photo by David Barnes

Not enough rain. Too much rain. The see-saw weather and its effect on Lake Lanier has again tilted the other way.

Two summers ago, North Georgia was in the grips of a drought that dropped the lake some 10 feet below full pool, drying up coves, leaving docks in the mud, exposing underwater objects and discouraging tourism at beaches and parks ringed by unsightly shorelines.

Normal rains helped ease worries last year and eventually restored the lake to normal levels. But in recent weeks, an early tropical storm brought heavy rains to the state. After a soggy Memorial Day weekend, a half-foot of rain caused streets to flood in Helen and washed over part of a highway. A few days later, rain washed out a culvert in Flowery Branch and damaged water pipes, affecting pressure to homes.

At Lanier, water levels have risen 3 feet past full pool and have inundated the docks and the timing tower at Lake Lanier Olympic Park, leading to a two-week delay in the Dragon Boat Challenge. Several  boat ramps, beaches and parks have been closed until the water recedes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages Lanier, responded by increasing water releases from Buford Dam downstream. Releases will run for 24 hours over the next two weeks to lower the level, said E. Patrick Robbins, Mobile District spokesman.

Friday, the Lake Lanier Association asked the corps to hold off on such releases over fear of too much water flowing downstream and its belief the lake’s summer full pool level should be raised to 1,073 feet above sea level to increase water storage for the droughts yet to come. Considering the capricious nature of the weather, that might be wise.

This discussion and the long-term effects of such moves are timely, not just because of the weather but that water releases from the dam are the crux of the two-decade dispute between Georgia and Florida over the amount of water in the Chattahoochee River basin allowed to reach those thirsty little oysters in Apalachicola Bay.

That dispute will enter its next chapter by the end of this month when the U.S. Supreme Court issues its ruling over the lawsuit filed by Florida over Georgia’s water use. The case was heard last year by a court-appointed special master, Maine attorney Ralph Lancaster, who ruled Florida had no case to limit our state’s water use through its claims of mismanagement by metro Atlanta and farms down state.

Yet at the Supreme Court hearing in January, lawyers from both states faced tough questioning from the justices. That led some to speculate the court may look for a compromise solution that would grant Florida some of what it wants rather than come down fully on one side or the other.

It all flows together: Searing drought. Torrential rains. Courtroom drama. Nature volleys our water back and forth while everyone waits for the line judges to decide who should get more of it.

The court’s ruling, while much-anticipated, is unlikely to resolve a dispute that has raged unabated for 20-plus years through several governors’ administrations. Other suits are pending, some involving Alabama, the third state in the water tango, and the corps. At some point, too, it’s possible Congress could get involved in how the corps has redrawn its water-use manuals for Lanier and the river basin. It’s a midterm election year and potential campaign fodder for lawmakers looking to score points.

It’s also an election that will produce new governors in Georgia and Florida, and perhaps a fresh chance to negotiate a deal outside of the courts both states can live with. Georgia’s Nathan Deal and Florida’s Rick Scott began such talks a few times over the years but were unable to come to an agreement.  Three years ago, a group of river basin stakeholders outside of state politics devised a plan they believed would equitably share the water. But the governments didn’t buy in, and political pressure in Florida led to the federal suit, ending any hopes of a brokered deal.

Depending how the court rules, the new governors might want to start talks fresh rather than rely on the justices or the clouds to provide relief. Better still, the stakeholders’ plan could be revived as a blueprint for a solution all states can live with.

Win or lose, this feud has been an expensive one for both states. Georgia’s legal tab for its dozens of lawyers has topped $50 million in the last four years, and Florida has spent even more. That’s money both states could use for schools, public safety, transportation or refunds to taxpayers rather than keeping teams of attorneys in stylish Italian shoes. One way or another, this needs to end.

It’s clearly evident how fickle the weather can be in the Southeast, and legal deliberations or legislative action are just as uncertain. Somehow, someway, sober heads need to rise above this unending conflict to devise a way to share the water in the basin fairly, both when there’s a little and when there’s a lot. Based on recent history, we know it often will be one or the other.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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