Army Corps of Engineers sticks finger in Atlanta’s eye

The US Army Corps of Engineers, not often known for swift action, seems suddenly to have sprouted winged feet.  Unfortunately for the Atlanta metropolitan area, the Corps’ new-found efficiency appears designed to stab the area in the back.   In a decision announced shortly before Thanksgiving, the lieutenant colonel heading the Corps’ Mobile District, which oversees the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin, decided to kowtow to the federal judge whose July 17th order threatens to shut off Lake Lanier as a source of water for most of the greater Atlanta area in three years. 

The Army suddenly has decided that its previously-announced revisions to the applicable Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which process had been ongoing for nearly two years already, must now be quickly revised to accommodate the federal judge’s draconian ruling.  The Corps also decided that its Master Water Control Manual for the ACF Basin, which it had not in the past viewed as an urgent undertaking, must now be quickly modified so as to be able to close the spigot for Atlanta immediately on July 17, 2012, the third anniversary of the court’s order. 

All these – and related – decisions by the Army presume that every aspect of Judge Paul Magnuson’s order was correct and will stand up on appeal.  This, however, ignores the fact that major legal questions about the correctness of the court’s ruling have been identified already in Georgia’s pending appeal.

The Army’s precipitous decision came also despite the fact that the three states (Georgia, Alabama and Florida) are engaged in comprehensive negotiations to settle the water war that has dragged on for a decade and a half.  Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue disagreed strongly with the decision by the Corps, which weakens Georgia’s hand in the high-stakes dispute, even as Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby publicly gloated over it.

In the wake of another federal court order, issued November 18th in Louisiana, the Corps of Engineers needs all the friends it can get.  In a highly unusual ruling, US District Judge Stanwood Duval ruled that the Corps is liable for damages to homes and businesses caused by flooding of the Corps-constructed Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO).  In his exhaustive, 156-page ruling, Duval was particularly blunt in highlighting the agency’s gross mismanagement of the waterway; concluding the Corps was in fact responsible for “catastrophic loss of life and property in unprecedented proportions” and for wasting billions of taxpayer dollars.

The government is certain to appeal the New Orleans ruling, which is a major indictment of an agency long-bedeviled by broad and vague responsibilities and suffering under onerous bureaucratic layers.  The jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers, for instance, encompasses not only deciding what can be done with the tiniest “waterway” within any US territory, but extends also to enforcing federal “wetlands” laws. 

Deciding what constitutes a “wetland” brings Corps’ personnel into frequent dispute with local governments attempting to build or expand municipal facilities.  The agency’s broad reach causes equally heated arguments with individual property owners, who might be seeking to undertake something as insignificant as repairing a small boat dock on a Corps-managed lake such as Lake Lanier.  These are tasks far removed, for example, from the storied achievements of the Corps during the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944. 

Trying to please all beneficiaries of a major, federally-chartered lake certainly is a difficult task.  However, the Corps’ often unbending reliance on its statutory jurisdiction, coupled with the fact that as a military unit, it is not directly accountable to the private sector, gains it view lasting friends.

Embracing a federal judge’s order, even before it has been made final through the normal appellate process, may curry favor with the federal judiciary, but it ill serves the citizens to whom the Corps of Engineers is ultimately supposed to be accountable.

32 comments Add your comment


November 30th, 2009
6:39 am

— That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form…”


November 30th, 2009
8:29 am

I love Atlanta, but I live in Alabama.My understanding is that Atlanta’s use of Lake Lanier water was illegal from day one.Criticize leaders from that era who decided to fudge and every leader since then who didn’t correct the error.
In a related issue, for Atlanta to choose to pay fines for decades for polluting the hooch rather than stop polluting lowers my sympathy level to below zero.

Feds R Fools

November 30th, 2009
8:40 am

That is rich Jopar, a clown from the most polluted state in the country complaining about Atlanta’s sewer discharge.


November 30th, 2009
9:07 am

Bob, I would say that the Corps’ decision on the Lanier water matter is just a reaction to the Louisiana case. Courts have warned the Corps previously re the Mississippi waterways & the Corps ignored the warnings. Apparently, this time they plan on being ready day one to execute any court order.

Chris Broe

November 30th, 2009
9:20 am

That’s not Atlanta’s eye……..

Chris Broe

November 30th, 2009
9:35 am

“….Deciding what constitutes a “wetland”…”

I don’t think it can be called an “eye”…..

Chris Broe

November 30th, 2009
9:48 am

Point of order: If the Engineers would stick their fingers into anything, it wouldn’t be Atlanta’s eye, sir.


November 30th, 2009
9:49 am

Even if in the Judge’s opinion, the use of the water was not for Atlanta’s benefit, it was publicly stated by both the Government and the Corp at the time of the construction, that the water of Lanier would “feed the thirst of Atlanta”. So, does Alabama propose we turn off the taps in Atlanta so they can continue to water their lawns? From a purely legal standpoint, maybe. From a reality standpoint. No. There is plenty of water flowing across the border, enough to keep Alabama happy for a long, long time. About the polluted water, I couldn’t agree with you more. That is a disgrace. It should be dealt with accordingly. If Alabama’s politicians truly cared about their constituents that would be the rallying point.


November 30th, 2009
9:58 am

How can Atlanta’s use of a lake in its state can be illegal when all water is a basic human right of its citizens? If Atlanta’s use of Lake Lanier is illegal then I would challenge the use of all dams and reseviors such as Lake Meed and other lakes used for drinking water. Then we would get some results which would favor Atlanta.


November 30th, 2009
10:00 am

The idea that any use of water from Lake Lanier which is not specifically spelled out in a document some 60 plus years old is prohibited is absurd. Congress gave the corps a right to manage waterways for a limited number of reasons. Drinking water was not one of these specific uses, but unless I’m mistaken it is not specifically prohibited. The Judge basically took the approach that any use not spelled out is prohibited.

Obviously, the easiest answer to all this is for Congress to take action. I think John Lewis should lead the charge, and although I’m not a fan of the race card, this is the time to play it. It should be pointed out that New Orleans and Atlanta are both majority black cities, and both ignored and slighted by the corps. I don’t believe this for one minute, but it could help the cause.

I Report/You Decide

November 30th, 2009
10:12 am

The whole thing is stupid. Basically, Alabama and Florida do not have to participate in drought, which is a natural occurrence. In periods of drought, the Corps releases water from Lake Lanier to make everything appear normal for our greedy downstream neighbors, while Georgians suffer through draconian watering restrictions. I can only imagine how infuriating it must me to be a Lake Lanier homeowner, paying what I’m sure are exhorbitant property taxes on lake front property with no lake. And let’s not forget that the water in question originates as rainwater falling on GEORGIA SOIL. I hope this will be a lesson to those among us want to turn over complete control of our lives and existence to the federal government.


November 30th, 2009
10:16 am

I say we arm ourselves and dare them to come and get it. At least that would be a heck of a lot of fun!


November 30th, 2009
11:29 am

Sonny Perdue better go back to praying……….BUT it is Not working ! I guess getting richer in office, and doing Zero is the Republican way !


November 30th, 2009
12:04 pm

Nothing to see here, move on.


November 30th, 2009
12:22 pm

Well, I have been thinking about moving for a long time. Now, I know my timeline.

Hillbilly Deluxe

November 30th, 2009
12:43 pm

The original purposes of Lake Lanier were flood control and navigation.


November 30th, 2009
12:43 pm

Here’s a novel idea . . . Dig More Resevoirs.


November 30th, 2009
12:47 pm

hey C Broe; not only is it “not an eye” but it’s not a finger, either

cranky old man

November 30th, 2009
2:21 pm

It’s likely to get worse in the coming years. If you want a preview, study the laws related to water rights in western states, where water has been scarce for decades. As I understand it, in Colorado you are legally forbidden from collecting rainwater runoff from your own roof. You are required to let it soak into the ground or run off to the nearest stream, because someone else may have bought the rights to that water 100 years ago. And don’t even think about sinking your own well.

Chris Broe

November 30th, 2009
2:28 pm

There is one thing we could do that may sound crazy, but it may be just crazy enough to work…….Metro Atlanta could, to a commode, all flush at once. (say when the peach drops on New Year’s Eve). I’ve done some preliminary estimates on the backup sewage that would spew in Southern Tennessee, Eastern Alabama and the Panhandle of Florida: It’s devastating. You know the amount of water that flows over Niagra Falls in a year? Well, that’s a trickle compared to what would happen just twenty seven seconds after we all flush. (Downside? Oh, there could be some collateral damage in the governor’s mansion, and along millionaire’s row in Buckhead, and it’s certain to wipe out Cabbage Town, but that’s a small price to pay and maybe it’s justice!)

We have to keep our options afloat, is all I’m sayin’. I don’t want to turn this discussion into a circus, but every crisis needs a Plan B.

Intown Lib

November 30th, 2009
3:46 pm

2nd perfect article in the last few months. Keep the attention on the unfair treatment Georgia is receiving from our supposedly unbiased Judge from Minnesota. Someone’s got to.


November 30th, 2009
4:34 pm

Steve, *many* new attempts at building additional reservoirs have been planned over the last 20+ years, but most of those plans have been shot down in court due to objections from outstate parties located downstream from Atlanta.

The Hickory Log Creek reservoir is one of the few that survived court challenges long enough to actually come to fruition.

How Atlanta is supposed to “solve” this issue when most of its attempts at proactive solutions have been shot down is beyond me.

We’ve been told by our neighbors that we can’t take water from the faucet that is located on our own property, and we’ve also been told that we can’t tap into the water pipes anyplace else because it would change the flow of the system for those neighbors. So what precisely is left for Atlanta to do? It’s damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t.


November 30th, 2009
4:59 pm

Just a preview of the new America our government envisions. Wait til they have control of vitually everything.

Byron Mathison Kerr

November 30th, 2009
5:01 pm

Jess, it’s called “paranoia.”

#1 Foxy Lady

November 30th, 2009
7:06 pm



November 30th, 2009
7:12 pm

Not that Fed R Fools rates a response, but Alabama’s waterways are in pretty good shape.I live on Lake Martin and it is an extremely clean lake.Beer cans and deer carrion on the side of the road, yeah, polluted rivers, nope.


November 30th, 2009
7:40 pm

What Bob Barr has forgotten is that it was Georgia’s senators and congressmen who demanded that the Corps update the Water Control Manual for the ACF Basin. Be careful what you ask for . . .

Rafe Hollister

November 30th, 2009
7:40 pm

Talking about abuse by the corps. I heard a story, when home on vacation in S Ga, that is unbelievable. Farmer decides he would like a few catfish to eat and he has a low spot in his pasture, so he takes a backhoe and digs a small pond, about 20 X 40 feet. He buys catfish and an aerator. Some one reports this “digging to the local Soil Conservation office and within a week he is told by the Corp that he has to drain the pond, refill the dirt or he loses all FSA funds that his farm receives as subsidies. Where we living, Russia?

Something I have never understood in this water war, is we have no right to take water from Lanier, according to AL, FL, Corp, and courts. We were taking water from the hooch before Lanier was built. Why can’t we just take what ever water we need from the Hooch, if we do not take it, it just flows on by. If we do take, we only rent it anyway, it flows back to the Hooch eventually. Need some common sense solutions in a country where common sense is just Un-common.

chris hardnett

November 30th, 2009
8:06 pm

Enter your comments here

Redneck Convert (R--and proud of it)

December 1st, 2009
12:46 pm

Well, we wouldn’t have this problem if people didn’t take a bath every day. Once a month is plenty, is what I say.


December 1st, 2009
11:24 pm

“feed the thirst of Atlanta” ? Unfortunately, this does not mean “satisfy atlanta’s thirst,” it means increase atlanta’s thirst. I’m glad we got that straightened out.

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