The long-running tri-state battle over rights to the water from Lake Lanier took a major turn on Monday, as the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a key state of Georgia request in the dispute.
Georgia was trying to reinstate an agreement reached in 2003, involving both federal and state entities, to send part of the lake’s water to the Atlanta area for drinking water.
The court did not explain its reasoning, simply letting stand a decision (which Georgia had appealed) in the U.S. Court of Appeals (Southeastern Federal Power Customers v. Green) from last February.
That decision concluded, “We need address only one of the statutory challenges. Under the WSA, the Corps must obtain prior Congressional approval before undertaking “major . . . operational changes.” § 301(d), 43 U.S.C. § 390b(d). Because the Agreement’s reallocation of Lake Lanier’s storage space constitutes a major operational change on its face and has not been authorized by Congress, we reverse the district court’s approval of the Agreement.”
The court described the geography: “Lake Sidney Lanier, a federally owned reservoir operated by the Corps and located in Georgia. It was created by the construction of the Buford Dam on the Chattahoochee River, approximately fifty miles northeast of the city of Atlanta. To the south of the Buford Dam, the Chattahoochee joins the Flint River and the two become the Apalachicola River, which flows through northern Florida andeventually into the Gulf of Mexico.”
The Court of Appeals also concluded that the 2003 deal was a secret settlement between Georgia and the U.S. Corps of Engineers, and on that basis was invalid.
Alabama Governor Bob Riley said he was pleased with the decision: “Today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court confirms that federal law does not permit Atlanta to take more and more water from Lake Lanier to the detriment of downstream interests in Alabama and Florida. Georgia tried to pull off a massive water grab, and this decision makes clear that Georgia’s actions were in blatant violation of federal law. . . .
“After nearly two decades of litigation, this marks a key milestone because the legal framework governing the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin has now been conclusively determined. The legal principle established in this case should now be applied to validate Alabama’s challenge to Atlanta’s current illegal consumption from the federal reservoirs in North Georgia.”
[see Birmingham Business Journal, January 12]