High court grants Georgia water-wars victory

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday secured metro Atlanta's claim to water from Lake Lanier, handing Georgia an enormous legal victory in the tri-state water dispute.

Three years ago, Atlanta faced a potential catastrophe when a federal judge ruled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had no right to allow almost 3 million metro residents to rely on the lake for drinking water. That same judge also set a doomsday clock ticking, saying he'd cut off the tap if Georgia, Alabama and Florida failed to work out a water-sharing plan within three years.

But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta overruled that decision, and on Monday, when the initial deadline would have had less than a month to go, the nation's highest court declined to hear appeals from Alabama and Florida. This means the appeals court's ruling stands.

It also means governors from the three states must reconvene negotiations over water rights — and it means Georgia will be in a much stronger position when that occurs. All three states are also eagerly awaiting a decision, expected later this week, by the Corps on the allocation of water from the man-made reservoir.

Monday, however, was a time of celebration for Georgia government and business leaders.

Shortly after the high court made its announcement, Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, took the stage at a Rotary Club of Atlanta meeting wearing a broad smile.

"We can legally drink the water of Lake Lanier," Williams said to booming applause throughout the banquet hall.

The much-anticipated decision could have monumental ramifications for economic development across the state and growth of the metro region.

Some companies have been hesitant to move to or expand in Atlanta, given the uncertainty of water supply, Williams said.

"That danger is gone now," Williams said. "It's time to sit down with our friends in Alabama and Florida. The gun's been removed from our head now. We can go sit down and resolve this."

Gov. Nathan Deal said he's ready to move forward now that the high court affirmed Georgia's claim that drinking water for the metro area was always an authorized use of Lake Lanier. He said he wants to come to a long-term agreement that will provide for the water needs of all three states.

During the decades-long dispute, Alabama and Florida have contended metro Atlanta consumes far too much water, leaving too little downstream for business interests, municipalities, farmers and endangered shellfish.

Spokesmen for Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley expressed disappointment the Supreme Court refused to hear their appeals.

"This is just one step on a long road," said Bentley spokesman Jeremy King. "There are many critical issues related to reliable river flows still to be decided, and Alabama will continue to fight to ensure that downstream communities receive the amount of water to which they are entitled under federal law"

Scott's spokesman, Lane Wright, said his state will take its time to explore possible options. "We want to make sure the needs of our citizens here in Florida are being met on this issue," he said.

George William Sherk, an attorney specializing in water law and who wrote a history of Lake Lanier, said Georgia should not begin cheering just yet.

"Practically, it solves nothing," Sherk said, referring to the high court's decision. There still has yet to be a decision as to exactly how much water is legally available to metro Atlanta, he noted.

Georgia must not only negotiate with its neighboring states, it must also satisfy a number of federal regulators, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Corps.

The 11th Circuit's ruling tasked the Corps with deciding how much water metro Atlanta can use from Lake Lanier.

The Corps is expected by the end of this week to issue an opinion to the 11th Circuit concerning its authority to accommodate water supply requests from Georgia, Corps spokesman Pat Robbins said. The state submitted a request to pull more water from Lake Lanier in May 2000.

This year, the Corps also will start the process of updating its operations manual for the river basin that includes Lake Lanier that could, among other things, establish metro Atlanta's share of water from the reservoir.

"We're going to be just as interested in the Corps' thinking, and frankly Alabama and Florida will too, as we were in the Supreme Court appeal," Judson Turner, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said.

The state continues to examine other possible expansions of the metro area's drinking water supply, including new reservoirs and ground water sources, and conservation also is a key thrust of the state's planning, Turner said.

The city of Atlanta will continue to work toward developing a fair water-sharing plan for all parties involved, said Sonji Jacobs, a spokeswoman for Mayor Kasim Reed. "The city is confident that with the ruling, the [Corps] can now develop a water control plan that can meet the reasonable needs of all users while protecting the environment."

John Brock, chief executive of Coca Cola Enterprises, expressed optimism the Supreme Court's decision means a resolution can finally be reached.

"It has the possibility of ending the legal wrangling of water wars and shift the paradigm," he said. "The uncertainty around water has been a challenging issue and this removes that uncertainty. This is a watershed event in the future of Atlanta."