The major Georgia-Alabama-Florida lawsuit over control and use of the states’ joint river system, which has run sharply against Georgia up to now, may have taken a major turn with a June 28 decision in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The district judge deciding the case up to now, the appeals court said, erred on several grounds. He was wrong to say that the federal work around Lake Lanier could not be used – as it has been, crucially – to supply water for the Atlanta metropolitan area. And he did not have authority to act generally, because administrative actions were not exhausted within the appeals process of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The court concluded: “For the reasons explained below, we hold: First, the district court erred in finding that it had jurisdiction to hear Alabama, SeFPC, and Apalachicola because the Corps has not taken final agency action. The three cases therefore must be remanded to the Corps in order to take a final agency action. Second, the district
court and the Corps erred in concluding that water supply was not an authorized purpose of the Buford Project under the RHA. The Corps’ denial of Georgia’s 2000 water-supply request is therefore not entitled to Chevron deference, and the request must be remanded to the Corps for reconsideration. Third, the district court erred in finding that the 1956 Act, which authorized the Corps to contract with Gwinnett County to withdraw 10 million gallons of water per day, expired after 50 years. Gwinnett County’s contractual and just-compensation claims are without merit. Fourth, we also provide certain instructions to the Corps on remand. And finally, the Corps shall have one year to make a final determination of its authority to operate the Buford Project under the RHA and WSA.”
It described the case generally: “All of the underlying
cases relate to the Corps’ authority to operate the Buford Dam and Lake Lanier, the reservoir it created, for local water supply. In its order, the district court found that the Corps’ current operation of the Buford Project — Buford Dam and Lake Lanier collectively — had allocated more than 21% of Lake Lanier’s storage space to water supply. The court determined that such an allocation exceeded the Corps’ statutory authority and ordered the Corps to drastically reduce the quantity of water that it made available for water supply. The court’s summary judgment order also affirmed the Corps’ rejection of Georgia’s 2000 request for additional water supply allocations to meet the needs of the localities through 2030. The court stayed its order for three years to give the parties time to reach a settlement or to approach Congress for additional water supply authority.”
It also said: “The Georgia Parties argue that the district court erred by concluding that the Corps lacked authority to allocate substantial quantities of storage in Lake Lanier to water supply on the basis of the legislation that authorized the creation of the Buford Project, the 1946
Rivers and Harbors Act (“RHA”), Pub. L. No. 79-525, 60 Stat. 634 (1946). Although not in agreement with the Georgia Parties that water supply for the Atlanta area is an authorized project purpose under the RHA, the Corps does argue that the district court underestimated its authority to accommodate the water supply needs of the Atlanta area. The Georgia Parties and the Corps both assert that the district court erred by misinterpreting the scope of the Corps’ authority under the
1958 Water Supply Act. The Georgia Parties and the Corps urge this Court to remand the case to the agency to make, in the first instance, a final determination of its water supply authority. Gwinnett County also individually asserts statutory, constitutional, and contractual claims relating to authority granted to it for its current withdrawals from Lake Lanier.”
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal released a statement: “The office of Gov. Nathan Deal is rapidly reviewing the decision of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on our water case, but at first glance it appears that the state of Georgia has won a great victory. The 11th Circuit panel has ruled unanimously that Lake Lanier was built for the purpose of water supply for the metro Atlanta area. This means that the Lake will continue to be available to meeet Georgia’s needs. The governor remains committted to working with Alabama and Florida towards a fair agreement regarding the sharing of water in the ACF and ACT Basins.”