The Supreme Court recently let stand a federal appeals court decision that said water supply was a core mission of Lake Lanier, something legally disputed by Alabama and Florida. Today, a Florida conservationist writes that Atlanta may have won the battle but the war for equity goes on. Georgia leaders want to find a way to cooperate and forge a tri-state plan.
Tom Sabulis today’s moderator. Commenting is open following the column by Tad Leithead and Boyd Austin.
By Dan Tonsmeire
It certainly appears as though Atlanta won with last week’s Supreme Court ruling. Unfortunately, the prize is likely to be 10 more years of unproductive litigation and no end to the water wars between the states.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ unilateral interpretation of the Fish and Wildlife and Recreation authorizations will no doubt be challenged. The court did not address this authorization and left it up to the corps’ discretion. Georgia’s claim to all the water that falls on Georgia also remains in dispute.
By refusing to hear the appeal, the court upheld a previous appellate court decision and gave the corps an official green light to exercise its authority to manipulate Lake Lanier’s water use and provide Atlanta with all the water it needs, and then some.
If past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, the corps will indeed exercise this authority. Unfortunately, it once again will be at the expense of those living downstream whose survival depends on these waters just as much as the folks in Buckhead.
All the courts, lawyers and legal arguments in the world will not provide what Georgia, Alabama and Florida are thirsting for — a truly equitable plan to share the waters we all depend on. A practical water allocation plan can only come from those of us with a clear stake in the outcome, not from a Solomon-like court decision.
All of us have paid the price of the more than 22 years of litigation and have practically nothing to show for it except lawyer bills. After fighting so long, many wonder if it is even possible to divide up the water flow and effectively and sustainably manage its usage so that it is here for us, our grandchildren and their grandchildren.
I happen to believe that it is possible and that each of us has a responsibility to one another to do it. Courts hand down decisions, they do not create plans. No court will ever be able to do what we can do — develop a practical water management plan that provides real guidance to groups for sharing a resource that every individual has an equal right to use.
I know that such a plan is achievable because I have seen it firsthand in the progress made by the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint stakeholders. This forward-thinking group represents the individual economic and ecological interests of those living along the three divisions of the river. With a methodical and balanced approached to problem-solving, the stakeholders are making headway toward an equitable water allocation plan that will balance the interests of all three states.
The path to a solution that is fair to all three states does not go through the courts, but through intentional work toward the common good. The ACF stakeholders’ work must be supported along with all efforts toward an equitable and sustainable water management plan.
Dan Tonsmeire is Executive Director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper in Apalachicola, Fla.
By Tad Leithead and Boyd Austin
Recently, Georgia and metro Atlanta got some very good news about legal issues in both the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa basins.
The Supreme Court affirmed that Georgia has a legal right to continue using Lake Lanier for water supply. The next day, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued its opinion that it has the legal authority to accommodate Georgia’s request for additional withdrawals from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River. Finally, in the ACT, a federal judge dismissed Alabama’s claims challenging water supply operations at Lake Allatoona.
In the ACF, Alabama, Florida and the Southeast Federal Power Customers had long taken the position that water supply was not an “authorized purpose” of Lake Lanier. Last year, the 11th Circuit rejected those arguments by holding that water supply is a fully authorized purpose of Lake Lanier, along with flood control, hydropower and navigation. At the same time, the 11th Circuit charged the corps with determining its legal authority to grant Georgia’s 2000 request of 705 million gallons per day from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River. The corps concluded that it has the authority to grant the full request, although additional work is needed before the corps decides how much of the request to grant.
Legal issues surrounding Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona have impeded progress in both basins for more than 20 years. With water supply established as a fully authorized purpose of Lake Lanier, the corps can move forward with developing water control plans for both systems that balance the various stakeholders’ needs with protection of the environment. That process will involve an environmental analysis and comments from the public.
These recent decisions liberate metro Atlanta and Georgia to work with Florida, Alabama and the corps to develop plans that meet everyone’s reasonable water needs while protecting our natural resources. Our focus on conservation must be unwavering as we do so.
The Atlanta Regional Commission and the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District are mindful that the waters we depend on are shared resources. We have said for many years that water policy issues in the Southeast should be resolved using facts and sound science; politics and lawsuits have impeded the formulation of such a policy.
Our region anticipates adding some 3 million residents in the coming decades. These decisions mark a significant milestone in securing the water supply that is crucial to that future.
Now, as we endeavor with our neighbors to develop a fair and equitable water-sharing plan, we remain committed to good water stewardship.
The waters of the ACF and ACT sustain all who reside and do business in the basins. We stand ready to work with our neighbors to manage them wisely.
Tad Leithead is chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission. Boyd Austin is chairman of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District.