Judge strikes down challenge to metro Atlanta’s water supply

Ala., Fla. groups wanted feds to revise region’s water-sharing blueprint
Lake Lanier is fed by the Chattahoochee River, which runs into Alabama and Florida, The three states have waged long legal fights over how to divvy up the water. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Lake Lanier is fed by the Chattahoochee River, which runs into Alabama and Florida, The three states have waged long legal fights over how to divvy up the water. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Metro Atlanta received encouraging news this week after a judge struck down an out-of-state legal challenge to how much water Georgia gets to keep from the Chattahoochee River.

In a ruling issued Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash dismissed claims from the state of Alabama and multiple environmental groups that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan is holding back too much water in Georgia reservoirs along the upper Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin.

The parties argued the corps didn’t properly balance the needs of downstream Alabama and Florida for uses like drinking water, wildlife conservation, navigation and recreation as it finalized its blueprint for the ACF basin five years ago. They sued the corps in 2017 to revise the template, which details the operations of five reservoirs, including Lake Lanier, through 2050.

Thrash concluded that the corps weighed the needs of all three states and that it didn’t need to revisit its plans.

“The decision was not arbitrary or capricious,” he wrote. “The Plaintiffs have not met their burden of showing that this delicate balance should be upset.”

Georgia had been backing the corps throughout the fight — which quietly played out as Florida and Georgia tussled over a separate case involving the ACF basin at the U.S. Supreme Court. The federal template gives metro Atlanta virtually all the water it needs for the next 30 years from the ACF basin, which provides drinking water to more than 4 million people in metro Atlanta and irrigates many southwest Georgia farms.

Gov. Brian Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr said they were pleased.

“We will continue to be good stewards of our water resources, and we are proud to have obtained a positive resolution on behalf of all Georgians,” they said in a joint statement on Thursday.

John Neiman, a lawyer for Alabama, said the state’s attorneys were reviewing the opinion and considering their legal options.

Some Georgia observers expect the plaintiffs, which include the National Wildlife Federation, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, to appeal the decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court.

An opinion by that same appeals court a decade ago set the stage for the corps to revise its blueprint, which hadn’t been updated since 1989.

The Chattachoochee River, seen here in 2011, exits the Buford Dam powerhouse in Cumming. Lake Lanier is on the other side. (Bita Honarvar / AJC file)

Credit: bhonarvar@ajc.com

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Credit: bhonarvar@ajc.com

Georgia Ackerman, executive director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, called the decision “extremely disappointing” and said the corps ignored “extensive testimony by scientific agencies and experts” as it was formulating its blueprint.

“The plan will further starve the Apalachicola ecosystem of vital freshwater flows, especially during the critical breeding, spawning and flowering seasons for many species,” Ackerman said. She added that they are considering an appeal.

Spokespeople for the national and Florida wildlife federations did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

The new ruling is Georgia’s second major legal victory in four months involving the ACF basin, which begins northeast of Lake Lanier and meanders through southwest Georgia into Florida’s Apalachicola Bay.

The Supreme Court in April unanimously dismissed a 2013 water rights case the state of Florida brought against Georgia. The corps was not a party to that suit, which blamed Georgia for the ecological collapse of the Apalachicola Bay following a drought.

Two lawsuits filed in Alabama challenge the way the federal Army Corps of Engineers plans to divvy the water in its dams along the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) river basins in the decades to come. (Alanta Regional Commission)

Credit: Atlanta Regional Commission

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Credit: Atlanta Regional Commission

Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been fighting over water for more than 30 years. Judges have begged the leadership of the three states to strike a water-sharing compact outside of court, but politics have stymied any sort of compromise over the last decade.

In his ruling, Thrash said “decades of deferral and delay due to litigation should end.”

Alabama has lodged a similar lawsuit against the corps over its plans for divvying up water in the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basin. It originates with the Etowah River in North Georgia and flows into Alabama before ending its run in the Gulf of Mexico.

Katherine Zitsch, managing director of natural resources for the Atlanta Regional Commission, which intervened on the side of the corps in both the ACF and ACT cases, said her organization looks “forward to moving beyond the courtroom and instead collaborating on ways to improve water management in the basin.”