Atlanta’s Lake Lanier Still Center In New Water Wars Plan

The powerhouse at Buford Dam generates electricity as water flows from Lake Lanier down the Chattahoochee River.
The powerhouse at Buford Dam generates electricity as water flows from Lake Lanier down the Chattahoochee River.
Credit Molly Samuel / WABE

The U.S Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a new plan for how to manage the water in Lake Lanier, Georgia, and in other reservoirs down the Chattahoochee River, and other rivers that feed into the Gulf of Mexico.

This water has been the center of conflicts between Georgia, Florida and Alabama for decades. While the plan clarifies some questions, it won’t be the last word in the water wars.

Long-Delayed Update

The ACF Master Water Control Manual Update document lays out how the Corps will manage the water in the five reservoirs in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin.

“Anyone who’s interested in recreation on Lake Lanier or in the Chattahoochee River, or fishing, or really any use of the water should be paying attention to this revision,” said Gil Rogers, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The document hasn’t been fully updated since the 1950s; it’s actually older than some of the dams on the rivers. But it’s not for lack of trying: The Corps started to update the water control manual in 1989, but the state of Alabama sued over whether water supply was really an authorized purpose of Lake Lanier.

Eventually, a court decided that Atlanta was allowed to use Lake Lanier for water supply, but the court didn’t get into the details of how much water, or how to parcel out the rest of the water for other uses. That brings us back to the current update, which begins to get into the weeds of how to manage Lake Lanier, taking water supply into account.

And it looks pretty good for Atlanta, said Katherine Zitsch, the manager of the natural resources division for the Atlanta Regional Commission.

“We’re generally pleased with what the Corps is showing in that they are going to grant everything that the state of Georgia has asked for, for metro water supply from the Chattahoochee River, and most of what the state of Georgia was looking for from Lake Lanier,” said Zitsch. “We’re obviously working on that key word, ‘mostly,’ as we move forward to get what we need for our Lake Lanier counties for water supply.”

Meanwhile, In The US Supreme Court

At the same time, Florida is suing Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court over the same water, claiming that Atlanta uses too much water, and not enough is making it down to Florida’s Apalachicola Bay in the Gulf of Mexico.

This is a sort of parallel situation, said Villanova water law professor Joe Dellapenna. He explained that the Supreme Court and the Corps are tackling different questions.

“The manual is simply its operations description, how it’s going to operate those dams over the coming period of years,” he said. “But it does not decide legal rights, who’s entitled to use how much water for what purpose and so on.”

So how much water each state gets is what’s up to the U.S. Supreme Court. How much water flows out of each reservoir is what’s up to the Army Corps of Engineers.

How exactly the U.S. Supreme Court decision – whatever it ends up being – will affect the Corps’ operations, is not totally clear. The Corps is not a party to this case. (Though Georgia did try to get the case dismissed, arguing that Florida’s complaint really should be with the Corps, rather than with Georgia.)

Florida and Georgia have also suggested that the states will try to settle the case outside of the Supreme Court. The special master, who manages the case, has told the states many times that he believes each state will be happier with the result and spend much less money if they can agree on a resolution instead of waiting for the case to be decided by the court.

Feedback On The Plan

The Army Corps of Engineers is collecting public comments on the draft plan until Jan. 30.

Zitsch said she has concerns about navigation requirements further downstream that could put pressure on Lake Lanier. Rogers said he thinks the plan is actually giving too much water to Atlanta based on population projections.

Whatever happens in the next steps with this document, Rogers said it’s not likely to be the last word in the water wars.

“We have three states right now with Republican governors and they’re just unable to come to a consensus on which state needs how much water,” he said. “And I just don’t really see that changing.”