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Our Views: A year of decision
Georgias drought was still a key story in 2008, but court rulings may change headline in 09
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One of the top stories of 2008 and 2007 likely will loom again in a year's time when we review the biggest local news headlines of 2009.

What direction that story will take remains to be seen.

The ongoing drought and legal battle over Lake Lanier's water supply could be resolved one way or another in the coming year as a slew of federal lawsuits make their way through the courts. Let's hope so; we are long overdue for a resolution of some kind.

Decisions by the courts over how much water the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can keep in the 38,000-acre reservoir likely will determine the future of growth in North Georgia. There are seven different lawsuits pending in federal courts over the tri-state water dispute, including one before the Supreme Court. Another case is expected to be heard in a federal court in Jacksonville in February.

In recent weeks, the news has turned more positive. Steady rains have lifted the lake back up to 1,052.90 feet above sea level as of Saturday, still some 18 feet below full pool but better than it was at the start of the year. Lanier had reached its all-time low by December 2007 and inched close to matching that mark a few weeks ago before the recent storms.

But that relief may only be temporary. Climatologists predict that even normal winter rainfall will not be enough to offset the effects of our two-year drought, which actually may be a 10-year drought, and Lanier still could approach its record level again in the coming months.

Meanwhile, our area remains the only portion of the Southeast still considered to be in a drought. Other areas of the South are no longer classified as drought-ridden, which includes states and cities downriver in the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola river system that Lanier's waters help feed.

The corps has begun the process of rewriting its operating manuals for Lake Lanier, which were created when the lake was first impounded in the 1950s. Drinking water was not included in the lake's original purposes (navigation, flood control, power generation and recreation), and the corps is seeking to update the books to include that crucial need for North Georgia.

But the governors or Alabama and Florida are asking the courts to suspend that change in an effort to maintain higher volumes of water releases from Buford Dam. Though neither state is currently under drought conditions, they still want the extra water downstream, and not for drinking. Alabama wants more to help cool its nuclear power plant near Dothan. Florida wants more to replenish the fresh water supply that flows into the Gulf of Mexico for the mussels and oysters that sustain the fishing industry in the panhandle.

As of now, the water flows are close to normal for rivers in both states. Lakes and reservoirs downstream in the ACF system are at or near full pool, none of them suffering the way Lanier has in recent years.

It would seem to be a no-brainer that Lanier should keep more of its water for the needs of more than 5 million people in North Georgia, especially as near-normal rainfall has helped boost river flows to neighboring states. That's how the corps sees it, which is why it has kept water releases at a minimum for some time.

During a time of economic recession, it makes little sense to further stymie commercial growth in metro Atlanta and other areas along the lake and river. If Alabama and Florida get their way, even more jobs could be lost in our region, as businesses will be unable to expand without the water they need. Agriculture, manufacturing and other industries already are suffering; cutting their water supplies, or charging them much more for what they already use, could be devastating.

Yet it's hard to predict how the courts will interpret the legality of the corps' actions or the states' claims.

And there's another variable to consider: Politics. It's the reason the governors of Alabama and Florida are continuing the fight, even as their own droughts have ended. Their voters want more water; they are not beholden to the constituents of North Georgia and couldn't care less if Atlanta dries up and blows away.

With a new administration coming into power on Jan. 20, they might find new allies. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne of the Bush administration has tried to be an honest broker in mediating the dispute between the states. But new secretaries will take over Interior and other key departments, and it's hard to know which direction they will lean. For instance, Florida's mussels fall under endangered species laws, which may be interpreted more strictly by a Democratic administration that the outgoing Republicans.

Do know this: Florida gave incoming president Barack Obama its 27 electoral votes in the fall election. Georgia gave its 15 electoral votes to Obama's challenger, John McCain. That may be a key reason Obama expressed support for Florida's position in the water dispute during the fall campaign. Those 12 extra Electoral College votes will continue to carry a lot of weight.

Our best hope lies in two solutions. One, that the courts apply common sense to the dispute and allow Lake Lanier to serve as an official source of water for the millions who depend on it, and have for years.

Two, and even more out of our control, is that normal to heavy rainfall continues to help refill the lake and maintain steady river flows downstream for everyone who uses water from the system.

If either of these hopes come through, we may be able to retire this story in years to come. But for now, expect Lake Lanier's fate to remain a top local story in 2009, whatever the final headline turns out to be.

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