Army Corps of Engineers water plan a boost for metro Atlanta’s growth

Metro Atlanta will get virtually all the water it needs from the Chatthoochee River and Lake Lanier through 2050, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ruled Wednesday.

Atlanta officials claimed victory but cautioned that the devil is in the details. The decision, and thousands of pages of documents, won’t be publicly released until Thursday.

In addition, it’s unclear what, if any, impact the corps’ decision will have on a more critical water resource issue: the ongoing water war between Georgia and Florida over an “equitable apportionment” of the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers.

A U.S. Supreme Court-sanctioned trial in Portland, Maine, between the oft-warring states ended a week ago, and the special master who oversees the case could make a ruling by Christmas. The nation’s high court will ultimately decide whether Georgia must cap its consumption of water to sate a thirsty Florida.

But Brad Currey, a board member of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, said the corps’ decision will likely ensure metro Atlanta’s growth and development well into the future.

“Boy oh boy, this looks like everything we could have possibly hoped for,” said Currey, a former CEO of Rock-Tenn (now WestRock) paper products corporation. “It is highly significant in every conceivable respect in that it apparently addresses droughts, minimum flows of the Chattahoochee and hydropower.”

The corps’ manual, which was last updated in 1989 and subjected to myriad legal challenges from Florida and Alabama, serves as the federally sanctioned template to manage the flow of the Chattahoochee and water storage among five reservoirs, including Lake Lanier. The voluminous study takes into account recreational needs of boaters on Lake West Point, barges steaming up the Apalachicola River, hydroelectric power generation and water withdrawals by increasingly thirsty metro Atlanta.

The manual stipulates that Forsyth, Gwinnett and Hall counties may withdraw 242 million gallons daily from Lake Lanier. The city of Atlanta and Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties would get an additional 379 million gallons daily from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee — enough water to slake population demands through 2050.

Metro Atlanta currently taps about 360 million gallons a day from the Chattahoochee.

Although details weren’t available, the corps also laid out various water control scenarios intended to drought-proof the region. Patrick Robbins, a corps spokesman, said the manual allows the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin to be operated “in a balanced manner to achieve all authorized project purposes.”

Currey, though, expects Florida and Alabama to, yet again, sue the corps over the water-sharing arrangement. A U.S. district judge ruled in 2009 that water supply was not an authorized purpose of Lake Lanier and threatened to cut metro Atlanta’s water use in half.

Two years later, though, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the so-called Magnuson ruling, declaring that Lake Lanier was indeed intended to slake metro Atlanta’s thirst.

Wednesday, the corps pointedly affirmed the circuit court’s decision.

"We are pleased that the long-term water supply needs of the Atlanta region will be met, as having a secure source of water is incredibly important to metro Atlanta's future," said Katherine Zitsch, the water planning district director. The district "is mindful that these precious resources are shared," she said.

Florida officials couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday. Florida is banking on the U.S. Supreme Court to send more Chattahoochee and Flint river water downstream to help oysters, sturgeon and endangered mussels survive.

The thrust of Florida’s 2013 lawsuit against Georgia revolves around its claim that profligate metro Atlanta lawn-waterers and southwest Georgia cotton farmers use too much water. The Sunshine State seeks a cap on Georgia’s water consumption and a surge in water flowing over the state line, particularly during times of drought.

An earlier draft of the corps’ manual, though, concluded that increased withdrawals from the Chattahoochee would have a “negligible” impact on Florida’s ecology or economy. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said the corps’ draft plan wouldn’t threaten the mussels and sturgeon.

While the corps is not party to the Florida v. Georgia lawsuit, it’s hard to consider the legal and federal machinations in a vacuum. The Supreme Court, after all, could order more Chattahoochee and/or Flint river water to be shared with Florida. And, if it imposes a consumption cap on Georgia water usage, the Chattahoochee and metro Atlanta region might have to get by on less water.

The corps appears to be saying “metro Atlanta can use all the water it wants but has to return it and not diminish the rights of downstream users,” Currey said.

“What happens in a severe drought is what Florida is most concerned about,” he said. “I don’t see the corps directly addressing that.”