Corps ruling secures metro Atlanta’s water from Allatoona for decades

Kathy Samples took this picture the morning after Thanksgiving last year from her deck at Lake Allatoona as the sun briefly came over the horizon.

Kathy Samples took this picture the morning after Thanksgiving last year from her deck at Lake Allatoona as the sun briefly came over the horizon.

For the third time in less than five months, metro Atlanta received assurance from federal authorities that a significant portion of its water supply needs will be secure in the decades to come.

The latest good news came from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which in a decision dated Aug. 27 granted Georgia’s water supply request for Allatoona Lake.

The move, following years of study, gives the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority (CCMWA) and the City of Cartersville — the only two water utilities with storage contracts at Allatoona — the supply they need through at least 2050.

“The Selected Plan is technically feasible and economically justified, in accordance with environmental statutes and is in the public interest,” Jaime A. Pinkham, acting assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, wrote.

Allatoona, built and operated by the corps, touches portions of Cobb, Bartow and Cherokee counties. It’s metro Atlanta’s third-largest water supply source after Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River, providing roughly 10% of the region’s water, according to the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District.

CCMWA and Cartersville had first requested additional supply from the corps 40 years ago, sparking what would become decades of litigation with Florida and Alabama as part of the tri-state water waters. The Georgia parties celebrated the corps’ decision as word spread out on Tuesday.

“It changes everything,” said Glenn Page, general manager of the Cobb-Marietta authority.

Just as critical, observers say, is a provision giving CCMWA full credit for the treated wastewater it returns to Allatoona and for the water it releases from the $100 million Hickory Log Creek Reservoir it built upstream for storage. Previously, the corps had given CCMWA credit for less than 5% of the water it returned to the system, according to Page.

Katherine Zitsch, managing director of natural resources for the Atlanta Regional Commission, said the accounting change will “encourage further smart infrastructure investments and efficient water use in the region,” which could pay major dividends during droughts. It would incentivize utilities to recycle water and store alternate water supplies rather than just rely on rainfall and what flows from upstream rivers.

“The momentous change in water policy for metropolitan Atlanta significantly increases our drought resiliency,” Zitsch said.

Page said the decision gives CCMWA a return on its investment in Hickory Log Creek Reservoir, which sits on the Etowah River northeast of Allatoona. The reservoir was completed in 2010 and meant to aid the region during droughts and to meet future demand. Without the corps’ ruling, the authority would have needed to purchase more storage space from the corps, with a price tag of tens of millions of dollars.

Allatoona Lake is at the front end of the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) river basin, which eventually flows into the Gulf of Mexico through Mobile Bay, Ala. Alabama has filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the corps’ plans for divvying up the ACT’s water, arguing that the corps is holding back too much water in Georgia reservoirs and didn’t properly take into account downstream interests.

A similar case Alabama filed in the neighboring Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin was dismissed by a federal judge earlier this month, which constituted a big victory for Georgia.

That ruling, combined with the corps’ new decision and a favorable ruling at the Supreme Court in April regarding the ACF, makes Georgia 3-for-3 on water rights cases.

But observers don’t expect the legal fighting to end anytime soon, especially as climate change makes droughts and extreme weather more common.

Some expect Alabama to challenge the corps’ Allatoona decision. A spokesman for Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall declined to comment.