Jul 18 2009

GA/FL/AL: Lanier deadline in 2012


Lake Lanier area

Imagine the scenario: The summer of 2012 arrives, no common agreement among Georgia, Florida and Alabama (or Congress) has been reached – as it has not for many years – and then comes the crisis: Water for much of metropolitan Atlanta is simply shut off.

That’s the warning, and the demand for a common agreement, implicit in the July 17 decision of U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson. Lake Lanier, a water body in Georgia, for decades has been a source of water for metro Atlanta but also for parts of Alabama and Florida – it feeds rivers which run through those states – and the three states have battled for years over the diversions. The water has been diverted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Alabama filed a federal lawsuit over the matter in 1990, and Florida subsequently joined in.


Paul Magnuson

Magnuson’s ruling, which said that the man-made Lake Lanier was not originally built with the idea of use for water storage at all, could require that water withdrawals return to levels from 30 years and more ago. Atlanta then was a few smaller metro area than it is now. Where it would get the water to replace Lanier’s is unclear.

The judge said he would allow for three years for either the three states, or Congress, to resolve the impasse.

Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, who has been outspoken on the tri-state battle for years, remarked, “Obviously, I am deeply disappointed by Judge Magnuson’s decision today. His conclusions rely on decades-old assumptions about the construction of federal reservoirs and the role those reservoirs play in providing water supply for growing states such as Georgia. Our country has changed substantially since the 1940s, when many of these reservoirs were constructed, and I will use this opportunity not only to appeal the judge’s decision but, most importantly, to urge Congress to address the realities of modern reservoir usage. The judge’s ruling allows a three-year window for either Congressional action or an agreement by the states and we will work diligently with Georgia’s delegation and members of Congress to re-establish the proper use of federal reservoirs throughout the country.”

But congressional action could be difficult to come by; among other things, the three states might have a hard time finding allies as long as they disagree among themselves. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggested on July 18, “Getting Congress involved in the dispute opens up a whole new can of worms. Representatives of Alaska or New Jersey, for instance, might ultimately have a vote in deciding how much water Atlanta gets from Lake Lanier. And in keeping with the grand game of politics, to get the support of their peers, Georgia’s delegation might have to give up some political goodwill — and votes — on issues totally unrelated to the water dispute. Senators from another state might agree to vote in Georgia’s favor on a water bill, for example, but only if Georgia’s senators agree to vote with them on some new defense contract or transportation project for their state.”

Another aspect of the case involves the uses to which the water in the dam, and the electric power it generates, can be put.

A hydropower group described that aspect of the decision this way (in a prepared statement):

The Buford Dam was originally authorized by Congress for hydropower generation, flood control, and navigation. In dispute has been the use of the dam’s storage and the operation of the facility as dictated by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (Corps).

The lawsuit, spearheaded by groups like The Southeastern Federal Power Customers, Inc. (SeFPC) on behalf of hydropower customers against the Corps, claimed that the operations of the Buford Dam were no longer adhering to its primary purposes of hydropower generation, flood control, and navigation. Rather, the Corps was increasingly allocating storage in the Lake Lanier reservoir for withdrawals for municipal and industrial water supplies.

“This is a huge win for consumer-owned public power and electric cooperative systems in the Southeast. We applaud the judge for correctly deciding the statutory purposes of this important federal project,” said Clint Vince, chair of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal’s Energy & Regulated Industries Group, who has represented SeFPC for over ten years in this legal battle. “We have always believed that the Corps has overstepped its authority and today’s ruling confirms that fact,” added Vince. “Now the battle will turn to Washington and the Halls of Congress.”

Today’s decision declared, once and for all, that the statutorily-authorized purposes of the Buford Dam, as intended by Congress, are hydropower generation, flood control, and navigation. The Court’s decision clearly recognizes limits on the Corps’ discretion to operate these federal projects.

Perdue statement at http://gov.georgia.gov/00/press/detail/0,2668,78006749_78013037_146040701,00.html.
The hydropower statement is at http://www.businesswire.com/portal/site/google/?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20090717005822&newsLang=en
See also the Atlanta (GA) Journal-Constitution on July 17.

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