Georgia’s ongoing water battle over Lake Lanier, its rivers and just how this precious resource should be shared with our neighbors has a growing list of opponents and a scoreboard that is tilted entirely in their favor at the moment.
The list of heavies is topped by U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson and includes governors and legislators from Florida and Alabama, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and, at times, even Mother Nature herself. All have teamed up against the state in its efforts to keep water flowing to the growing communities in North Georgia and metro Atlanta.
The rains of the last several months have eased Georgia’s drought-induced pain, but the battles on the legal and legislative front have brought little relief.
Magnuson’s first body blow came in July, when he ruled that the corps was wrong to allow Atlanta and other communities, including Gainesville, to draw water at will from Lake Lanier. The lake’s original manuals designated its key purposes as flood control, recreation, power generation and navigation, not water supply, and until those manuals were updated and approved by Congress, water intake must be curtailed.
Magnuson, ruling collectively on a couple handfuls of individual suits over the matter, then gave Georgia three years to settle on a water-use plan with Florida and Alabama that everyone can agree upon.
In response, Gov. Sonny Perdue began a four-pronged strategy to deal with the issue: seek new water talks with neighboring states, push members of Congress for relief, pursue new supplies of water in the future and appeal Magnuson’s ruling in federal court.
So far, the legislative efforts aren’t panning out. On Oct. 1, a spending bill passed by Congress, despite opposition from Georgia lawmakers, requires the corps to report on water allocation within 120 days in the key river basins shared by Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
This is the same corps that hasn’t rewritten the manuals in 50 years, and now it is supposed to solve the issue in four months. Whatever it concludes in such a short time frame is not likely to benefit our state’s efforts.
Then last week, Magnuson lashed out at Georgia’s appeal of his decision, saying that its energies would be best spent pursuing a negotiated settlement, not further litigation. He refused to categorize his ruling as a "final judgment," which would give Georgia a second avenue of appeal. Insult to injury, one might say.
One could argue that the judge’s initial ruling on Lanier, while difficult to swallow and potentially damaging to the state, was legally sound. The corps failed to rework its manuals to redefine Lanier’s uses in a timely fashion, giving Georgia a shaky legal foundation to stand on. Fair enough.
But the state has every right to pursue any appeal process that ensures that the ruling is correct. It is hard to imagine why the judge isn’t willing to let his decision stand without issuing further admonishment.
And though he‘s right in saying that Georgia should pursue further water talks with its neighboring states, he clearly isn’t aware that Perdue has done just that as part of his four-part strategy, but so far hasn’t found two willing dance partners.
Shortly after the July ruling, Perdue invited Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Fla. Gov. Charlie Crist back to the negotiating table and provided a list of potential dates. Riley has accepted but Crist has not. Florida’s governor is running for the U.S. Senate next year, so perhaps he is too distracted by his own political ambitions to spend time on an issue that won’t be resolved during his term.
In fact, all three governors will be out of office before Magnuson’s deadline arrives, so any deal they reach might be revisited by their successors, whoever that may be.
Anyway, Riley and Crist got what they wanted: a federal ruling that limits Lanier’s use as water supply by metro Atlanta, threatening the future growth of the South’s largest and most influential metropolitan area. Why would they want to negotiate over what they have already won? Or is it more in their interests to stall until the three-year clock runs out on Atlanta’s water supply?
The tri-state water dispute has gone on for two decades. It’s been all of three months since Magnuson’s decision. In that short period, state leaders have scrambled to find new water sources, including potential reservoir sites such as the Glades Reservoir project by Hall County and the city of Atlanta’s notion to fill a new lake on property it owns in Dawson County.
Last week, Perdue launched a water task force that will help the state pursue its four-pronged approach and all legal and negotiated solutions to the problem. That group already has met to begin mapping out its strategy.
Rest assured, there’s no foot-dragging going on here. Even as recent floods left parts of North Georgia underwater, the water issue has remained front and center with the state’s leaders.
But there’s just so much the state can accomplish on its own without support in Washington, the courts or our neighboring states. As its foes continue to gather, our state is fighting the water wars with a rapidly diminishing arsenal and no allies but ourselves.
Let’s just hope it keeps raining.