In July, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson issued a shocking ruling on the ongoing conflict between Georgia, Alabama and Florida over use of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-controlled Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River Basin that has Georgia officials facing a three-year deadline to obtain Congressional authorization to use the lake as a water supply. The case may set a precedent on the use of Corps-controlled reservoirs around the country.

When the Corps built Lake Lanier in the 1940s, state officials assumed at the time that the lake could be used as a water source as needed, says Bert Brantley, spokesperson for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. However, that purpose was never enumerated in the federal law governing the lake's use. If Georgia fails to acquire Congressional approval for the use of Lake Lanier as a water source in three years, the state could only draw water from the lake as an “incidental benefit,” meaning only at levels that do not interfere with authorized uses of the lake and river, such as power generation and flood control. “[That] would put us back [to levels drawn] in the mid-1970s when you had a millions less people in the metro area,” Brantley says.

In research compiled to prepare for that future legislation, Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson's office has identified 78 Corps-managed reservoirs in 27 states that are being used for water supply without specific authorization for that purpose. The Corps has not yet verified those numbers, Isakson spokesperson Marie Gordon says.

The possible national implications of Congress' decision on Lake Lanier would be determined on a case-by-case basis, says Kathy Robb, director of the New York-based Water Policy Institute. “[It will depend on] what the authority has been at each individual reservoir, what the legislative history says about it and how each reservoir might [be affected],” she says.

Meanwhile, Brantley says, Georgia needs Lake Lanier. “Three and a half million residents of metro Atlanta rely in some part or some way on water from the Chattahoochee Basin [and Lake] Lanier,” he says.

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If Georgia's access to Lake Lanier is restricted, the state may:

  • Use quarries to store extra water

  • Increase water-sharing connections between communities

  • Implement drastic water conservation measures

Source: Bert Brantley, spokesperson for Gov. Sonny Perdue