Another ‘Water Wars’ Case Goes Georgia’s Way

A floating dock sits on the shore as Lake Lanier water levels recede about eight feet below normal in 2016.

David Goldman / AP Photo

There’s more good news for Georgia in the decades-long legal battles between the state and its neighbors over water: A judge has sided against Alabama in a case concerning metro Atlanta municipalities’ use of water from Lake Lanier.

Alabama and Florida have long complained about Georgia’s water use, but this is the second case to go Georgia’s way this year in the ongoing fights over water in the Southeast. This past spring, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Georgia in another case, ending Florida’s effort to put a cap on how much water Georgians could use.

In the case decided this week, Alabama and environmental groups were challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan for how it manages Lake Lanier and other reservoirs and dams in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin.

A handful of local water agencies get their water directly from Lanier: Gainesville, Gwinnett, Cumming and Forsyth.

“For metro Atlanta, what was at stake was really our ability to withdraw water from Lake Lanier,” said Katherine Zitsch, manager of natural resources at the Atlanta Regional Commission.

The ARC had intervened in the case, siding with the Army Corps of Engineers along with the state of Georgia and metro Atlanta water agencies.

Alabama and the other plaintiffs claimed the Corps should not have allocated so much water for the metro water supply instead of sending more of it downstream for hydropower and the environment.

Florida’s Apalachicola Bay has been a focus in these water fights. It’s home to a unique ecosystem in the Florida Panhandle, and the environment of the Bay has suffered, as have the oysters and the people who rely on the oysters for their livelihoods.

But in this case, as in the earlier Supreme Court case, the judge did not find that water use in Georgia was harming downstream uses or the environment in the river basin.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash wrote that the Corps’ water control manual assures water supply to metro Atlanta “without significant sacrifices to environmental standards, and recognizes the need to maintain other uses of the ACF system such as flood control, hydropower generation, fish and wildlife conservation, navigation and recreation.”

“We are pleased with Judge Thrash’s decision,” Gov. Brian Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr wrote in a joint statement. “We will continue to be good stewards of our water resources, and we are proud to have obtained a positive resolution on behalf of all Georgians.”

Linda MacGregor, water resources director for the city of Gainesville, said the ruling demonstrates that Gainesville is using water responsibly.

“We will continue to do conservation and water quality, and other good work to protect Lake Lanier,” she said “[The decision] doesn’t literally change anything that we’re doing on a day-to-day basis for Lake Lanier, but it does assure us a dependable supply for the future.”

The environmental group Apalachicola Riverkeeper, which was suing the Corps along with Alabama, called the decision “extremely disappointing.”

“The plan will further starve the Apalachicola ecosystem of vital freshwater flows, especially during the critical breeding, spawning and flowering seasons for many species,” Georgia Ackerman, executive director of the group, said in a written statement.

The Southeast has been hit by a handful of multi-year droughts in the past 20 years. And more are likely to come, according to federal climate projections for the Southeast. Scientists warn that climate change will probably cause more swings in weather here, with more extreme rainfall and more drought both on the horizon.

This case can still be appealed, and there is another water case still ongoing concerning different rivers shared by Georgia and Alabama.

Glenn Page, the general manager of the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority and chair of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, said that successes for Georgia over the years have felt like climbing a staircase.

“It was like a step towards a win, a step towards a win, a step towards a win. And then we get to the top of the stairs, and there’s a door that’s closed that we’re going to have to push through,” he said.

This case will likely not be the last word he said, “but it was another chance for us to push through that door at the top of the stairs.”

At the end of his decision, Judge Thrash – as others have before him – encouraged the states to find a way to work together.

“Decades of deferral and delay due to litigation should end,” he wrote.