After decades of legal fights, metro Atlanta utilities secure their water supply

Most Atlantans get their water from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River.

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After 30 years of legal battles, several cities and counties near Lake Lanier now have contracts guaranteeing them access to water from the lake.

Though they’ve been using the water already, their right to it had been challenged by Florida and Alabama as part of the long-running fight over water between the states. Now, with contracts signed, a major chapter of the so-called Water Wars is over, though some litigation is still ongoing.

The issue for the local water providers was that when Congress authorized the construction of Lake Lanier, it didn’t explicitly say the reservoir could be used for water supply. Georgia’s downstream neighbors, Alabama and Florida, objected to metro Atlanta utilities tapping into it.

One lawsuit nearly resulted in metro Atlanta having to find a new source of water before it was reversed. More recently, Florida challenged Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court, asking for a cap on Georgia’s water use. The justices sided with Georgia last year.

“We had all sorts of battles that we had to fight,” former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said at an event celebrating the new water contracts at the state Capitol on Monday. “When you have adversaries like Alabama and Florida, who want their share of that water — although I never did quite understand why Alabama was so concerned about it, they had more water than they knew what to do with — but Florida had a legitimate concern.”  

Florida argued that lower flows of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers from Georgia was having disastrous effects on the oysters — and oyster industry — in Apalachicola Bay and on the environment along the Apalachicola River. Alabama was concerned about water supply for power generation along the Chattahoochee.

But their legal challenges have not been successful. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages Lake Lanier, updated its Water Control Manual for Lake Lanier, and it included water for metro Atlanta utilities in its decision.

Last year, the Corps and the State of Georgia signed a contract guaranteeing storage in the lake for local providers to draw from through 2050. On Monday, Georgia and those providers, Forsyth and Gwinnett Counties, and the cities of Cumming, Buford and Gainesville, signed individual contracts.

“At long last, we have secured water supply for Georgia families for another generation,” Gov. Brian Kemp said.

The contract with the Corps is for about $71 million, according to the governor’s office, to be paid over 30 years. Once the payments are done, the state will have permanent rights for the water storage.  

Rebecca Shelton, acting director with Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources, said it’s good news for residents and businesses.

“We’ve been using Lake Lanier for our water supply for a very long time,” she said. “But this is the first time we’ve had a long-term contract that guarantees water supply for Gwinnett. And it’s an amount that will take us far into the future.”

Going forward, Deal offered advice about things he learned from the Water Wars. One, in reference to the disagreements over what Congress intended Lake Lanier for, was for lawmakers to make sure they write legislation clearly. Another was to encourage agencies and others to continue to cooperate when it comes to water.  

“There will be other issues,” he said. “The necessity of water is going to continue. And as we expect, the demands for water are also going to continue.”