ATLANTA — Metro Atlanta started the week under the threat of a court order that could have shut off its main water source for 3 million people, making Georgia the needy neighbor in legal negotiations with neighboring Alabama and Florida.
It ends the week holding some of the best cards at the table.
A ruling Tuesday from a three-judge panel on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a lower court order that would have severely curtailed Atlanta's access to water from Lake Lanier on the Chattahoochee River starting in July 2012 unless the three states struck a deal.
Then the appeals court went even further, saying that Georgia has a legal right to water from the lake.
Georgia has been in a long-running fight with its neighbors over how much water metro Atlanta can take from a watershed serving all three states.
"We're in a better position because the court has now removed the 2012 deadline," said Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who said he still wants to negotiate a final agreement. Alabama has already said it will appeal the ruling to the full court, while Florida Gov. Rick Scott's office was still reviewing it Wednesday.
"It takes a lot of the pressure off Georgia to come to the table, I think," said Dan Tonsmeire of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper.
Florida officials and environmental organizations including the Apalachicola Riverkeeper blame a shortage of water for killing wildlife and damaging valuable fisheries. "From my perspective, I would much like to see the pressure kept up so we can try to resolve the thing rather than have it interminably be appealed through the courts," Tonsmeire said.
The ruling Tuesday was the latest twist in a legal dispute that began in 1990 and centers on how much water Georgia can withdraw from the Chattahoochee River, which skirts the western edge of Atlanta, then flows south along the border of Georgia and Alabama. It merges with the Flint River to become the Apalachicola River, which cuts south across the Florida Panhandle and empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
Alabama and Florida say Georgia has little legal right to tap water from Lake Lanier on the Chattahoochee River. The neighboring states say Atlanta never contributed to the cost of building the mid-century dam.
It remains unclear whether settlement talks will quickly resume. As a practical matter, the three governors have not held negotiations over the Chattahoochee River watershed since they took office this year. That could change.
"Everybody has sort of been waiting to see what the directions from the court may be," Deal said.
Despite the recent legal win, Georgia attorney R. Todd Silliman said the state still had a motive to negotiate since an agreement would give states more power over setting water use levels.
"If you go to the courts, there's no guarantee that all three states will come out of it happy," Silliman said.