ATLANTA - A federal appeals panel handed Georgia a victory Tuesday by finding metro Atlanta can legally tap a reservoir that provides water to roughly 3 million of its residents and tossed aside a lower court order that would have severely restricted access to that water starting next summer.
The decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a nearly two-year-old ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson, who found that metro Atlanta had little legal authority to take water from Lake Lanier on the Chattahoochee River. In a ruling that Magnuson acknowledged was "draconian," he said water withdrawals must be reduced starting in July 2012 to levels last seen in the 1970s unless the political leaders of Alabama, Georgia and Florida struck a deal.
Georgia had argued that Congress meant for the project to provide Atlanta with water and accused Magnuson of failing to consider the harm his order would cause. Alabama and Florida, which also rely on the Chattahoochee, said the dam was never intended as a major water supply and that usage by ever-growing Atlanta was harming communities and endangered wildlife downstream.
In their unanimous ruling, the three-judge appeals panel gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the dam, one year to re-evaluate a request from Georgia for more water with the legal guidance that water supply is one of several permissible uses of the reservoir.
"We know that Congress contemplated that water supply may have to be increased over time as the Atlanta area grows," the judges wrote. They told the Army to conduct its review as swiftly as possible. "The stakes are extremely high, and all parties are entitled to a prompt resolution."
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal's office called the ruling a "total victory."
"We have a unanimous court ruling here," Deal spokesman Brian Robinson. "And very clear language, so it makes sense to stop the litigation here and go back to the table and find a water-sharing agreement that provides for the futures of all three states."
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said he was disappointed by the panel's decision and would appeal to the full court.
"We recognize that it is only one step on the long road of litigation of these disputes," he said in a statement.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott's legal team was still reviewing the decision late Tuesday. Eric Draper, executive director for Audubon of Florida, said he hoped Scott would appeal.
"This is one time when Governor Scott is going to need to stand up for Florida's environment. This is the place that Governor Scott can connect the dots between Florida's economy and the environment because Florida's economy relies on that water."
Draper said Georgia needs to develop plans to conserve water so less comes out of Lake Lanier.
Striking down Magnuson's order improves metro Atlanta's hand at the bargaining table by eliminating what its political leaders considered an imminent, worst-case scenario: losing its access to water from Lake Lanier without a ready alternative. It also gives Georgia's governor more time to reach a political agreement. Deal flew to Montgomery, Ala., on June 15 for a face-to-face meeting on water issues with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley.
Lake Lanier was formed by damming the Chattahoochee River northeast of Atlanta. The river curves southwest around Atlanta, then flows along the border between Alabama and Georgia. The Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers merge at Lake Seminole on the Florida border and form the Apalachicola River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
The legal feud, ongoing since 1990, focuses on how much water metro Atlanta can take from headwaters that serve three states.
Atlanta never contributed to the cost of building the dam on Lake Lanier, which was completed around 1960, because a previous mayor thought water would never be in short supply. Lawyers for Alabama and Florida have argued that Congress authorized the dam to provide electricity, support navigation and control floods - not to supply drinking water.
Attorneys for Georgia said lawmakers always intended the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would operate the hydroelectric dam in a way that provided enough water for Atlanta downstream. The case is especially important to Gwinnett County, an Atlanta suburb that draws its drinking water directly from Lake Lanier.