Corps denies Alabama Allatoona claim

In a 1940 letter that is now at the heart of a water rights war in Georgia, then-U.S. Army Chief of Engineers J.L. Schley wrote Congress about the purposes for a new reservoir on Georgia’s Etowah River: flood control, navigation and power generation.

Congress ultimately approved the Allatoona Reservoir’s construction, consistent with Maj. Gen. Schley’s recommendations.

More than a half-century later, Alabama is citing the congressional record that contains Schley’s letter and arguing in court that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is illegally allowing the Atlanta region to tap Allatoona for drinking water. The corps, which manages the reservoir, denies Alabama’s allegations, saying federal law allows it to permit certain withdrawals from Allatoona without congressional approval.

If all this sounds familiar, it should.

A federal judge ruled in a separate legal case last month that the corps has illegally allowed the Atlanta region to draw water from the Lake Lanier reservoir, saying Congress never intended it for that purpose. In his ruling in the nearly 20-year-old legal dispute among Georgia, Alabama and Florida, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson said Lanier’s original purposes as authorized by Congress were: flood control, navigation and power generation.

Alabama, which shares with Georgia the river basin that includes Allatoona, paid close attention to Magnuson’s ruling. Alabama officials say the corps’ management of the Allatoona reservoir has threatened economic development, power generation and river navigation in their state.

“There is no question that reservoir was built for specific purposes and none of those purposes is supplying drinking water,” said Todd Stacy, a spokesman for Alabama Gov. Bob Riley. “There really is no away around the law and we found that out in Judge Magnuson’s courtroom.”

A corps spokeswoman declined to comment for this article, citing the pending court case in Birmingham.

The Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority first entered into a contract with the corps to pull water from Allatoona in 1963. And that contract, which has since been amended, cites the Congressional record containing Schley’s letter.

Glenn Page, the authority’s general manager, said the federal Water Supply Act of 1958 gives the corps the power to permit withdrawals from Allatoona. The act, however, says changes that would “seriously affect” the purposes for which Congress authorized the reservoir or that would involve “major structural or operational changes” require Congressional approval. The corps decided it didn’t need Congressional approval for its contract with the authority, Page said.

“Our contract is for less than 5 percent of the storage capacity of Allatoona,” Page said.

Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue, agreed, saying, “You cannot make a serious argument that what is happening up there is a major operational change.”

Alabama officials have argued the authority’s withdrawals do represent significant impacts and require congressional approval. Alabama has also argued the authority has been withdrawing more from Allatoona than what its contract permits and has asked the judge in the federal case to order those extra withdrawals to stop.

“Alabama has never argued that no drinking water should ever be taken from any reservoir or anything like that,” said Stacy, the Alabama governor’s spokesman. “We must set up a plan. And there must be reasonable limits set up for withdrawals.”

Page denied Alabama’s assertion that the authority is withdrawing more than allowed from Allatoona, adding that his agency should get credit for the roughly 12 million gallons of treated water it returns to the lake each day.

Meanwhile, members of Georgia’s congressional delegation are considering legislation as early as next month that could permit municipalities to draw drinking water from Allatoona and nearly 80 other federally managed reservoirs in 27 states. Just like Allatoona, an estimated 77 other corps-managed lakes across the country are used for municipal water supplies even though they aren’t specifically authorized for that purpose, according to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s (R-Ga.) office. Five other Georgia lakes are on the list, including Lake Lanier and Lake Hartwell.

A Corps spokeswoman said she could not confirm that number.