published Saturday, August 13th, 2011

Alabama, Florida appeal water ruling

Two kayakers paddle along the shoreline of Lake Lanier near Gainesville, Ga. The lake is a major water source for metro Atlanta.
Two kayakers paddle along the shoreline of Lake Lanier near Gainesville, Ga. The lake is a major water source for metro Atlanta.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ATLANTA — Alabama and Florida appealed a ruling Friday that handed metro Atlanta a big victory in a tri-state water war by striking down a decision that severely would have restricted access to the city’s water supply for roughly 3 million people.

Georgia’s neighbors asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider a June ruling from a three-judge appeals panel that instantly changed the political dynamics in a long-running fight over water rights in the basin formed by the Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola rivers. Georgia’s neighbors say metro Atlanta uses too much water upstream, leaving too little downstream for neighboring states, businesses and wildlife.

Critical impact

The appeals “impact critical water resources in each of the States of this Circuit, and the outcome will affect the citizens as well as economic, environmental, and ecological interests in the three States for decades to come,” attorneys for Alabama and Florida said in their appeal.

The full appeals court has not decided whether to consider the case. Georgia has not yet responded to the latest filings.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said he believed the full appeals court will uphold what he called a “common sense” ruling favorable to metro Atlanta.

“Now’s the time to leave the courtroom and enter the negotiating room,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said. “The governors can hammer out an agreement that will provide for the long-term water needs of all three states.”

The ruling in June was the culmination of a legal case simmering since 1990 that focuses on how much water Atlanta can withdraw from the headwaters of a river system serving three states.

No shortage?

Atlanta never contributed to the cost of building the dam forming Lake Lanier, which was completed about 1960, because a previous mayor didn’t believe water would be in short supply.

Lawyers for Alabama and Florida say Congress authorized the dam to provide hydroelectricity, support navigation and control flooding — not supply drinking water for the growing city.

From that dam, the Chattahoochee River flows southwest to Atlanta, then runs south along the border of Alabama and Georgia. It merges with the Flint River at the Florida border to become the Apalachicola River, which cuts south across the Florida Panhandle and empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

In the appeal, Alabama and Florida say the three-judge panel failed to show that Congress specifically allowed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the reservoir, to earmark water held there for Atlanta’s use.

Two years ago, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that Atlanta had little legal right to water from the reservoir. He signed an order that would have restricted Atlanta’s withdrawals from the river starting next summer to levels last seen in the 1970s — when the city was a fraction of its current size — unless the political leaders of Alabama, Florida and Georgia struck a deal ending the impasse.

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