The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta Tuesday overturned a federal judge’s ruling that ordered massive cutbacks in drinking water withdrawals by Atlanta and surrounding communities from a federal reservoir known as Lake Lanier.
The appeals court ruled that U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson was wrong when he ordered the cutbacks because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had not completed its work determining withdrawal amounts from Lake Lanier, and that the federal judge erred when ruling that withdrawals for drinking water are not authorized.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal called the ruling a “great victory.”
“The 11th circuit panel has ruled unanimously that Lake Lanier was built for the purpose of water supply for the metro Atlanta area,” Deal said. “This means that the lake will continue to be available to meet Georgia’s needs.”
Magnuson’s ruling potentially impacted a combined population of more than three million people in the Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area. The judge had ordered cutbacks by almost half to occur by next year.
The ruling also sent the state scrambling to create a bond financing program to implement alternative water supply programs. State officials are still choosing a process to determine which projects will be financed.
The ruling is related to the “tri-state water wars” between Georgia, Alabama and Florida over regional water rights and withdrawals from Lake Lanier and interconnected river basins. Withdrawals in Georgia affect the amount of water that flows to the other states.
Magnuson ruled in 2009 that the Atlanta region did not have the right to withdraw as much water as it did because Lake Lanier was built for hydroelectric power, not water supply.
Deal said he is committed to working with Alabama and Florida “towards a fair agreement regarding the sharing of water.”
To address the federal court ruling and a severe drought in Georgia, state officials over the past few years developed recommendations on water conservation and supply options.
Earlier this year, Deal signed SB 122 into law, authorizing the use of public-private partnerships to develop drinking-water supplies and related infrastructure projects. The new law also allows bond financing to be used in conjunction with P3s.
Deal has also pledged to authorize $300 million of bonds over the next few years to finance water-related initiatives.