Yesterday’s ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson, denying metro Atlanta access to water stored at Lake Lanier, leaves the metro region up the creek.
Let me be more specific: Up a bone-dry creek.
The potential impact of the decision is disastrous. Magnuson ruled that with the exception of Buford and Gainesville, the metro region has no right to withdraw water from Lake Lanier, and no right to store water there against future drought.
The state was given three years to get try to get Congress to alter its authorized purposes for Buford Dam. If it is unsuccessful, Magnuson ruled, “the operation of Buford Dam will return to the ‘baseline’ operation of the mid-1970s. Thus, the required off-peak flow will be 600 cfs and only Gainesville and Buford will be allowed to withdraw water from the lake. The Court recognizes that this is a draconian result. It is, however, the only result that recognizes how far the operation of the Buford project has strayed from the original authorization.”
At first blush, it’s likely that Gwinnett County would face drastic and immediate water shortages if that occurred. Its whole sewer and water infrastructure, and the bonded indebtedness that financed it, is predicated on access to Lake Lanier. The impact on the rest of metro Atlanta would be less immediate but severe, particularly in times of drought.
Gov. Sonny Perdue has pledged to appeal Magnuson’s decision, noting that “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.” But that’s just the point. Those conclusions are indeed decades old and have never been updated by Congress, as the law requires. With that statement, Perdue essentially conceded that Magnuson’s ruling was legally correct.
To be blunt, the state’s entire strategic approach on this issue has been wrong-headed. It has made no effort to try to correct the problem through Congress and little effort to build consensus with its neighboring states of Alabama and Florida. It has instead based its entire strategy on winning in the courtroom, an approach that never seemed likely to succeed. Magnuson’s ruling is a thorough legal repudiation of Georgia’s argument, and an appeal seems unlikely to alter the outcome.
We are now left in the position of trying to negotiate a settlement in Congress, and we probably need the cooperation of our neighbors in Alabama and Florida to do so.
And frankly, kneeling on the ground and begging for your opponent’s pity is not exactly a strong negotiating position.