Ben Evans and Greg Bluestein
Atlanta — Georgia faces the dire prospect of losing metropolitan Atlanta’s main water source if political leaders can’t broker a solution with Alabama and Florida over rights to a major reservoir within three years.
That doomsday scenario would cut off water for more than 3 million residents, driving a stake through the heart of Atlanta’s decades of rampant growth and threatening one of the Southeast’s main economic engines amid a sour economy.
Experts say they doubt a recent federal court ruling will shut the taps off, but it does put Georgia in a weak position and could finally push the three states back to the negotiating table after nearly two decades of stalemate.
After all, said Atlanta Regional Commission Chairman Sam Olens, “FEMA isn’t going to provide enough trucks to have drinking water for 4.5 million residents” in the Atlanta region.
Georgia could be forced to make significant concessions to Florida and Alabama that it so far has been unwilling to adopt, like spending hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure, establishing tighter drought restrictions and offering rebates for more efficient toilets, dishwashers and washing machines.
Friday’s ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson found that nearly all Georgia’s withdrawals from Lake Lanier are illegal because the lake was built for hydroelectric power, not to supply water.
Magnuson acknowledged the decision was “draconian” but said he had to recognize how far the lake’s operation had strayed from the law.
The governors of Alabama and Florida celebrated the ruling, while Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue vowed to fight, saying he would appeal the decision while working for a favorable outcome in Washington.
“I will not negotiate a deal that’s harmful to the future of Georgia. Just won’t happen,” a defiant Perdue said Tuesday. “We’ll take our chance in court before we’ll agree to a deal that does not meet the needs of a growing and prosperous Georgia.”
Both Congress and the courts could be difficult routes. A federal appeals court in Washington already ruled against Georgia in a related case last year, and Georgia lawmakers would face an enormous challenge to overcome resistance in Congress from their Florida and Alabama colleagues.
Georgia’s congressional delegation is looking to Perdue for guidance, and leaders in all the states said any compromise would require significant leadership at the state level.
“I think the governors all felt they were likely to be victorious. I kept telling them that if you don’t settle it, somebody’s going to win and somebody’s going to lose,” said U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. The clear victory for Alabama and Florida “strengthens our hand in a number of ways,” he said.
Georgia, which just emerged from an epic drought, contends the issue is about the survival of its biggest metropolitan area.
But Florida and Alabama depend on downstream flow from Lake Lanier for commercial fisheries, farms, industrial users and municipalities. The Army Corps of Engineers also is required to release adequate water to ensure habitats for species protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Magnuson ordered the lake’s water usage to be kept at current levels for three years. If an agreement isn’t reached by then, he said the lake’s operations would return to its level in the 1970s, when Atlanta was a fraction of its current size.
“The three governors ought to come together quickly ASAP to discuss the decision and craft a joint resolution,” said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a leading Atlanta Democrat. “Or else the hammer is coming down on us.”
Florida and Alabama may also be more inclined to negotiate with Georgia rather than risk an unfavorable outcome in Congress or by the courts on a possible appeal — particularly if Georgia is willing to hand over long-sought concessions.
“The fact of the matter is we can do more with water conservation that would be appealing to the governors of Alabama and Florida,” Olens said.
“This conflict should have been resolved long ago,” said Daniel Sheer, founder of HydroLogics, a national water planning consulting company that has worked with Atlanta municipalities. “There really is quite enough water to do everything you need to do.”
But, he said, “There is an enormous amount of bad will and an enormous amount of political posturing going on, politicians getting elected by exploiting the conflict … particularly among the governors.”
Environmental groups want the ruling to sound the alarm for conservation.
“It’s a definite signal to Atlanta to examine the way it’s been growing the past 30 years and whether that’s keeping with the water resources,” said Gil Rogers of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “I think this ruling is a signal we can’t afford that kind of attitude anymore.”