Although cautious in their response to Tuesday’s decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to toss out a lower court ruling that would have restricted Atlanta's access to drinking water from Lake Lanier, officials are hailing it as a great victory for Georgians.
“The office of Gov. Nathan Deal is rapidly reviewing the decision of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on our water case, but at first glance it appears that the state of Georgia has won a great victory,” Brian Robinson, the governor’s deputy chief of staff for communications, said in a released statement. “The 11th Circuit panel has ruled unanimously that Lake Lanier was built for the purpose of water supply for the metro Atlanta area. This means that the lake will continue to be available to meet Georgia’s needs.”
Robinson said the governor remains committed, however, to working with Alabama and Florida towards a fair agreement regarding sharing of these water resources.
Had this decision not been overturned, starting in July 2012, Georgia's access to drinking water from Lake Lanier would have been restricted unless the governors of the three states came to some agreement to end the long-standing water wars between them.
The appeals court ruled that the U.S. Corps of Engineers must first issue a final decision on whether Georgia can have more water before legal challenges can proceed. Tuesday's decision overturned an earlier order from U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson.
U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall (R-GA) hailed the decision as a “major step forward for Gwinnett County and metro-Atlanta.” Gwinnett County gets all its water supply from Lake Lanier, drawing an average of about 575 million gallons per day for its 800,000 residents and business customers.
“This decision affirms what many Georgia officials involved in the tri-state water discussions have advocated for years, that the Lake Lanier Reservoir was meant to supply northeast Georgia’s families and businesses with a steady and adequate supply of water,” Woodall said in a release. “With this decision there is now an honest foundation on which the three governors can proceed in their discussions on how to responsibly manage the water supply from the ACF river basin, which we must all share. The best conservation techniques in the world wouldn’t help to counter a complete absence of water supply from Lake Lanier.”
Woodall said he looks forward to working with the governor and Georgia delegation, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on the next steps to ensure that water from Lake Lanier will continue to flow to the millions of Georgia residents.
Gwinnett County officials were cautious in their response, with Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash saying while they were pleased that the water supply is confirmed as an authorized purpose for water from Lake Lanier, they are awaiting the Army Corps of Engineers final analysis to determine the specific impact to the county.
“We understand that we must share this valuable resource with other metro water providers and will continue to be good stewards for all those who live downstream,” Nash said.
Department of Water Resources Acting Director Lynn Smarr said the Corps can now include water supply with the other authorized purposes in the technical analysis when determining all the authorized purposes as well as environmental protections under federal and state law.
The court also suggested that the Corps of Engineers formulate a policy for water that is returned to the lake by water suppliers. Officials said these return flows, such as those returned to the lake by Gwinnett’s F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center, require a significant investment in technology and infrastructure by water providers.
“This is good news for Gwinnett County and supports the investment we made in returning water to Lake Lanier,” Nash said.