Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Again today, we can thank the federal judiciary for keeping this from being a slow week in politics. Late yesterday afternoon, a three judge panel unanimously overturned a 2009 ruling by Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson. Magnuson had declared that Georgia must settle the dispute with Alabama and Florida over how much water it could take from Lake Lanier, or otherwise reduce the amount of water taken by the Atlanta region for drinking purposes to 1970’s levels.
Magnuson agreed with Florida and Alabama that Lake Lanier was not constructed to serve as a water supply for the Atlanta area, having only the federally mandated uses of hydroelectric power, navigation, and flood control. The three judges scoffed at this position, noting that prior to the dam’s construction, the Chattahoochee river served as the main water supply for Atlanta, and thus Atlanta and the state of Georgia would not have allowed or supported construction of the dam if it threatened the capitol’s water supply.
Magnuson had essentially threatened to cut off water to many Atlanta households if Georgia didn’t agree to settle on terms that would no doubt have been favorable to the neighboring states. Instead, the three judges instructed the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the flow of water from Lake Lanier to communities downstream, to update its water allocation plan within one year, taking the needs of all stakeholders, including the need for Atlanta drinking water, into account. It is presumed that the Governor’s initiative to jump start reservoir construction across North Georgia to buttress Lanier’s supply will continue, as will conservation efforts aimed at reducing per capita consumption.
With final resolution still over a year away, many throughout Georgia are still breathing a sigh of relief. Nervous South Georgians have long since feared that Atlanta would use inter-basin transfers to move water from their regions to Atlanta to quench its ever growing thirst. Much of this region is having water problems of its own these days, as 22 counties were declared disaster areas yesterday due to ongoing drought.
Agricultural interests in Southwest Georgia, however, may not be overjoyed at the prospect of Atlanta sending less water downstream, as many along the southern Chattahoochee’s banks have more common interests with Alabama on the subject than their fellow Georgians to the north.
Georgia’s leaders at the state and federal level have often wondered aloud but off the record whether Alabama’s true intentions were about water, but much more about capping Atlanta’s growth. There was a time when Atlanta and Birmingham were quite similar and competed for the perception of being the capital of the south. Hartsfield Jackson airport seemed to settle that battle. Georgia’s front line leaders of this water war battle firmly believed that Alabama was significantly less concerned about the amount of water available for a lower Alabama nuclear power plant than siphoning off growth that would have otherwise been headed to Atlanta were it not for a new found lack of hydrological infrastructure.
Alabama’s governor has vowed an appeal to the full 11th Circuit, but with the three judges ruling unanimously, it is unlikely that the full body currently composed of 10 judges will overturn the three. The Army Corps of Engineers is now tasked with finalizing a report that they have been working on for more than 20 years, prioritizing the needs of all users within the Chattahoochee basin. Presuming this ruling stands, the needs of roughly five million Georgians to occasionally drink water will stand high on that list.