A federal judge has issued a stunning blow to Georgia and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by ruling that water withdrawals from Lake Lanier on the Chattahoochee River for Atlanta area cities are illegal.
Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been battling in federal court over water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system since 1990. The ruling today in a consolidated case by U.S. District Judge Paul A. Magnuson appears to give Alabama and Florida leverage in securing water they want from the river system.
In a 97-page ruling, Magnuson said the Corps of Engineers had violated federal law by allowing water withdrawals that were not authorized by Congress when a dam was built to establish Lake Lanier in the 1950s.
Magnuson issued a stay of further court proceedings for three years so that the parties involved could seek federal approval for water withdrawals. If they are not successful in getting Congressional reauthorization, then only the Georgia cities of Gainesville and Buford will be allowed to continue their withdrawals, which had existed before Lake Lanier was built.
The judge laid out the history of Congressional authorization for the Buford Dam and concluded that the Corps of Engineers actions in changing reservoir operations were an “abuse of discretion and contrary to the clear intent of the Water Supply Act.”
Florida officials said the ruling affirmed their position that the Corps and Georgia could not take water from Lake Lanier without congressional approval. Florida officials said they have been working to protect threatened fish and wildlife along the Apalachicola River and the seafood industry at Apalachicola Bay.
Gov. Charlie Crist said the ruling offers the opportunity for the governors of the three states to work outside the court system for a solution that is beneficial.
“Florida has always been ready to negotiate, in good faith, a fair equitable sharing of the waters in the basin,” Crist said. “We remain committed to doing so in the future.”
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, in a statement issued by his office, struck a defiant tone, saying his state would appeal Magnuson’s ruling.
“His conclusions rely on decades-old assumptions about the construction of federal reservoirs and the role those reservoirs play in providing water supply for growing states such as Georgia,” Perdue said. “Our country has changed substantially since the 1940s, when many of these reservoirs were constructed, and I will use this opportunity not only to appeal the judge’s decision but, most importantly, to urge Congress to address the realities of modern reservoir usage.”
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said the ruling was “tremendous” for his state’s economic and environmental future.
“Atlanta has based its growth on the idea that it could take whatever it wanted whenever it wanted it, and that the downstream states would simply have to make do with less,” he said. “Following the court’s ruling today, this massive illegal water grab will be coming to an end.”
Magnuson said the Corps’ slow pace of action has provokes the already inflammatory case. And he said the agency’s continued use of of a 50-year-old operations manual is “beyond comprehension.”
Yet in a statement with added consequences for the nation, Magnuson wrote:
“The blame for the current situation cannot be placed solely on the Corps’s shoulders, however. Too often, state, local, and even national government actors do not consider the long-term consequences of their decisions.
“Local governments allow unchecked growth because it increases tax revenue, but these same governments do not sufficiently plan for the resources such unchecked growth will require. Nor do individual citizens consider frequently enough their consumption of scarce resources, absent a crisis situation such as that experienced in the ACF basin in the last few years.
“The problems faced in the ACF basin will continue to be repeated throughout this country, as the population grows and more undeveloped land is developed. Only by cooperating, planning and conserving can we avoid the situations that gave rise to this litigation.”
(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission).