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Our Views: Another battle won, yet the war goes on
Supreme Court lets Lake Lanier ruling stand; now work begins on a final deal
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

There was some good news this week about Lake Lanier.

The Supreme Court, in the midst of one of its busiest weeks in memory, brought us closer to a solution in the tri-state water wars without actually producing a decision.

The court chose not to hear the case brought by Alabama and Florida to challenge a ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals almost a full year ago. That decision overturned the harsh edict issued by U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson in 2009 that would have limited North Georgia’s ability to draw drinking water from Lake Lanier, scheduled to take effect this year.

The ruling affirms the case Georgia had been making all along, that Lanier was originally intended as a water source for metro Atlanta and other nearby counties.

It was a major step forward in Georgia’s goal to gain more control over the water that flows down the Chattahoochee River, into Lanier and out of Buford Dam, and down through Atlanta and south Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico.

But it’s not the last step, nor the only one needed to ensure that enough water will be available now and in the future.

With the court battles put aside for now, the focus turns in two directions: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and its task of rewriting the water-use manuals created for Lanier in the 1950s to apportion the amount of water released by the dam for all who depend upon it; and renewed negotiations with our neighbor states to better share the river basin’s water.

Magnuson’s ruling stood in the way of both efforts moving forward. All waited to see how the Supreme Court would rule before trying to enter any long-term agreement that could be scuttled by changes in Georgia’s legal right to the lake’s water.

As long as the court decision was pending, neither Alabama nor Florida seemed particularly motivated to negotiate water use. That now may change, and Georgia may find itself dealing from a greater position of strength.

But there is a trap door to that as well. Any deal negotiated by the states will need congressional approval. And delegations from Alabama and Florida have Georgia outvoted in Washington, so any agreement will have to fully satisfy the needs of both states.

The other debate likely to be touched off is whether Georgia counties in the river basin should move forward with plans to add new reservoirs. That’s particularly the case with the planned Glades Reservoir in North Hall, which is moving through the slow process of earning the proper permits before it can be constructed and filled.

Hall’s plan is to create the new 850-acre lake and link it with pipelines to the existing 141-acre Cedar Creek Reservoir in East Hall to provide some 72 million gallons of water for daily use and sale to nearby counties. Critics already opposed the reservoir over concerns about the expense and environmental impact. Some now may question the need for it with Lanier’s water supply less in doubt.

But there is another variable beyond the legal, political, financial and environmental battles that is outside of anyone’s control: the weather. Yes, North Georgia now may have freer rein to Lanier’s water, but that’s provided there’s enough water there to go around. When lake levels dip to record lows as they did in the drought of 2007-08, that supply may be in jeopardy. Another lengthy stretch without rain — and it’s been a hot, dry summer so far this year — could put us back in crisis mode, regardless of victories the courts may provide.

That’s why plans need to be made to conserve and distribute the system’s water fairly and wisely. New reservoirs would offer backups to the backups and help alleviate the short-term pain during a drought.

And we all can do our part by staying aware of our personal water consumption and recognize that it is a limited resource.

The water wars aren’t over by a long shot. Georgia has now won two major battles, but that victory can only be secured by wise leadership that protects our precious resource and shares it equitably with our neighbors downstream who rely on that same water source.

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