Court allows Georgia to appeal water ruling

Georgia may appeal a momentous ruling that declared metro Atlanta cannot tap into Lake Lanier to supply most of its water needs, the federal appeals court in Atlanta has decided.

In a unanimous decision issued Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed Georgia one of its few legal victories of late in the high-stakes, tri-state water dispute.

The court agreed with Georgia's legal team that one facet of Senior Judge Paul Magnuson's ruling in July was a "final judgment" that can be appealed. The 11th Circuit said that because all issues in the complex litigation are "inextricably intertwined," it will consider all findings made by Magnuson in his sweeping July 17 ruling.

In July, Magnuson found it illegal for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to draw water from the massive federal reservoir formed by Buford Dam to meet the water needs for more than 3.5 million metro area residents.

The judge stayed the case, giving Georgia, Alabama and Florida three years to resolve the 20-year-old dispute. Otherwise, Magnuson said gravely, he will turn off the tap.

After Magnuson issued his ruling, Georgia asked the judge to formally issue a final judgment. Magnuson declined and chided Georgia for continuing to litigate the case and not reaching a settlement.. Georgia appealed his decision anyway, and on Wednesday the 11th Circuit took the case.

Gov. Sonny Perdue welcomes the 11th Circuit's decision, his spokesman, Bert Brantley, said Thursday.

"The governor has called Judge Magnuson's ruling a game-changer so, obviously, overturning the ruling would be a game-changer as well," Brantley said. "It's very good news."

Georgia will continue to try and reach its primary goal -- a negotiated settlement over Lake Lanier water rights with Alabama and Florida. Brantley called recent talks "very productive."

Vicki Barnhorst, executive director of the Lake Lanier Association, also applauded the 11th Circuit decision. "This is a significant victory for everyone in Georgia and gives us an opportunity to restore water supply as a congressionally intended benefit of Lake Lanier," she said.

Todd Stacy, a spokesman for Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, said the 11th Circuit's decision to consider all the issues at once makes sense but will make no difference in the final outcome. "Judge Magnuson's order is firmly grounded in the law, and Alabama is confident that it will be affirmed on appeal," he said.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's press office did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.