Quietly, A Court Victory For Georgia

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

There has been much publicity over cases decided at the U.S. Supreme Court during the past week.  While the country waits for the ruling over President Obama’s Health Care Reform law, there was a major case decided against unions last Thursday and much of Arizona’s immigration reform law was gutted by the Court in a decision passed down Monday.  Georgia, however, may be most affected by what the Supreme Court decided not to do.

The Court let stand a ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that Georgia, and the Atlanta area specifically, is entitled to drinking water from Lake Lanier.  One year ago a three judge panel overturned Federal Judge Paul Magnuson who had declared that Lanier was constructed with federal funds to support hydroelectric power, navigation, recreation, and flood control.  This ruling had threatened to choke off the Metro Atlanta region’s main water supply, with the judge having given a three year deadline to seek alternatives.

While deciding many high profile cases annually and occasionally earning the scorn of being activist judges, the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to take many more cases than it hears.  The decision announced Monday that the Tri-State Water Wars case would not be heard was in itself an approval of the lower appeals court. 

The occasion where no news is good news should be used to underscore this point.  A branch of the government co-equal to the executive and legislative branches that is often derided when it overturns a decision as being “activist” is much more often passive.  The more recent charges that the court is too political are likely to be framed by split decisions for partisans in the final two big cases.  The union case was against the wishes of the left.  Arizona’s case went largely against the wishes of the conservative right.  It is expected that the decision on health care reform may well go against the partisan left. 

Talking points used on Monday supporting the court will likely be exchanged on Thursday with those who are currently blasting the court.  The situational agreement with the court should indicate that it is not the judicial branch that is overly partisan, but those who seek to manipulate the decisions for political gain.

While Georgia must still negotiate with the Army Corps of Engineers over the amount of water that can be taken from Lanier, we are under significantly less pressure to accommodate the needs of endangered species in Alabama (roughly translated as a Southern Company Nuclear Plant) or oysters in Apalachicola Florida over those of humans in Atlanta.   During the last significant drought, the Army Corps rules for water flows out of Lanier required more water to be released than would have occurred had Buford Dam never been constructed.  As new rules are finalized, the expectations are that water needed by metro residents will not be sent downstream to take care of snail darters first.

There are farmers in Southwest Georgia who are likely not celebrating this ruling.  Water not released downstream from Lanier is water that is potentially not available for crop irrigation from the waters of the lower Chattahoochee.  There remains fear that Atlanta’s unchecked growth provides too much opportunity for inter-basin water transfers which will redirect water that would otherwise end up on South Georgia crops into suburban Atlanta homes. 

The economy has checked some of that growth for about half a decade.  There are a series of new reservoirs being designed north of Atlanta that should mitigate some of this concern, and should hopefully be online when the Atlanta region returns to full growth mode.

In the mean time, those eying the water supply now turn to the Army Corps of Engineers, who will soon release new regulations on how water will be used or not used from Lanier.  It is generally expected that the new rules will be significantly more favorable to Atlanta and its drinking water needs.  If not, perhaps we will be back watching for more court decisions soon. 

And perhaps next time, we’ll be searching for an activist rather than a pacifist court.   After all, whether the third branch of government should remind us they are co-equal always is directly proportional to if we want intervention of like the status quo.


  1. chamblee54 says:

    Thank you for pointing this out. The story is a good excuse for writing a few hundred words of text. You have to put something between the pictures.
    We still have it better than much of the world. In Kenya, you have to walk to a water vendor every day to buy your 20 liters. Having a birth certificate does not help.

  2. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    We give the Supreme Court all hell when they make decisions that do not go our way, so we absolutely must acknowledge them positively when they make decisions, or in this case, non-decisions, that go our way.

  3. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    “There are a series of new reservoirs being designed north of Atlanta that should mitigate some of this concern, and should hopefully be online when the Atlanta region returns to full growth mode.”

    That entire scenario, investing in our water infrastructure to accommodate future growth, would be very welcome news when it happens.

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