Friday, July 17, 2009

Judge rules against Georgia in 'water wars' case — UPDATE

Posted By on Fri, Jul 17, 2009 at 7:57 PM

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Score one for Alabama in the never-ending "water wars" debacle.

U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson today ruled that metro Atlanta's water withdrawals from Lake Lanier — long a bone of contention between Alabama, Florida and Georgia — are illegal and ordered withdrawals frozen at their current levels. Magnuson gave the Peach State three years to receive Congress' approval should it want to keep dipping its straws in the giant jetski-filled pond. (PDF of the judge's ruling)

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, whose state has argued for years that Lake Lanier was never authorized to be metro Atlanta's water fountain, was gracious when he heard the news. According to a statement from the governor printed in the Birmingham Business Journal:

“The significance of today’s ruling for Alabama’s economic and environmental future is tremendous...Atlanta has based its growth on the idea that it could take whatever water it wanted whenever it wanted it, and that the downstream states would simply have to make do with less. Following the court’s ruling today, this massive illegal water grab will be coming to an end.”

Bill Rankin of the AJC reports it's in Georgia's best interest to receive the OK from D.C. If not, then Buford Dam will return to its "baseline" operation of the 1970s.

“Thus...only Gainesville and Buford will be allowed to withdraw water from the lake,” Magnuson said in a 97-page order. “The court recognizes that this is a draconian result. It is, however, the only result that recognizes how far the operation of the Buford project has strayed from the original authorization.”

So while it's still too early to start stockpiling Dasani or siphoning water from your neighbor's swimming pool, be warned that after nearly 20 years, we still haven't solved this pesky little problem.

We haven't heard word from Gov. Sonny Perdue's office, but we can assume today's ruling wasn't music to his ears. We'll update when his office releases a statement.

(UPDATE) From the Associated Press:

Magnuson cited a lengthy historical record of testimony before Congress and Corps of Engineers documents to establish that serving Atlanta's water needs was only an incidental purpose for the lake. He noted that Georgia officials argued as much to avoid having to pay for part of the project when the reservoir was built in the 1950s.

And here's Mayor Franklin's response:

Water is a critical resource. The City of Atlanta is spending billions of dollars rebuilding its water infrastructure under federal consent decrees. As mayor, I recognize the seriousness of the ruling and also the value of proper resource stewardship. Clean water is needed for public health, fire protection and economic development for every person and community in Georgia. The Governor and the State have the lead in this case and we and the other Metro Area water providers are following their lead. This is not only a local or regional issue, but a national issue. We welcome the opportunity to resolve it fairly and amicably.

And here's Atlanta Regional Commission Chair Sam Olens' position. It's a lengthy one. We've pasted it here in full because he raises interesting points:

We agree with the Judge’s message but disagree with his order. We absolutely agree with his following points:

The water supply problems faced in this river basin will continue to be repeated throughout this country – only by cooperating, planning and conserving can we avoid these situations.

Congress must act quickly to approve changes in the authorized uses for Buford Dam and Lake Lanier.

As stated by Judge Magnuson, “The municipal entities that withdraw water from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River cannot suddenly end their reliance on that water merely because a federal court has determined that the Corps failed to comply with its statutory obligations.”

The Judge has given three years for Congress to authorize the appropriate uses for this water resource. He doesn’t want the Corps to take three years to do a plan – he wants the plan and the changes in authorization done in three years.

This is in absolute agreement with our position. We need to fairly allocate the water resource so that the needs of all users in the ACF basin are met. It can be done. It must be done. As the metro Atlanta-area consumes just 1 to 2% of the flow of the ACF Basin in any given year, it is also clear that there is more than enough water in the basin to accommodate our present and future needs without compromising the environment downstream.

The time for States to block this action through appropriation bills and other legislative maneuvers is over. The time for cooperative action is now.

We are evaluating all our legal options, including appeal.

From Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael W. Sole:

“Today’s ruling is a monumental milestone in the 18-year battle between Florida, Alabama and Georgia over the waters of the ACF basin, underscoring the importance of the Apalachicola’s environment and economy," Crist said. "The Judge’s decision allows the governors to come together to reach an agreement outside of the court system. I look forward to working with Governors Riley and Perdue to find a solution that will be beneficial for all of our states.”

“Florida has always been ready to negotiate, in good faith, a fair equitable sharing of the waters in the basin,” stated Governor Crist. “We remain committed to doing so in the future.”

“The Apalachicola River and Bay are one of the most productive and diverse estuarine systems on the Gulf of Mexico coast,” said Secretary Sole. “The Army Corps of Engineers’ operation of the system has been harmful and detrimental to the ecosystem. It is my hope through this ruling the states can come to a solution that protects the important natural resources of the region.”

From Gov. Sonny Perdue:

“Obviously, I am deeply disappointed by Judge Magnuson’s decision today. His conclusions rely on decades-old assumptions about the construction of federal reservoirs and the role those reservoirs play in providing water supply for growing states such as Georgia. Our country has changed substantially since the 1940s, when many of these reservoirs were constructed, and I will use this opportunity not only to appeal the judge's decision but, most importantly, to urge Congress to address the realities of modern reservoir usage. The judge’s ruling allows a three-year window for either Congressional action or an agreement by the states and we will work diligently with Georgia’s delegation and members of Congress to re-establish the proper use of federal reservoirs throughout the country.”

(Photo by Joeff Davis)

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