The federal courts have finally brought some sanity to the tri-state water wars. U.S. District Judge Paul A. Magnuson ruled last month that metro Atlanta would have to stop withdrawing water from Lake Lanier unless Georgia cuts a deal to boost river flows to downstream communities in Florida and Alabama. It is about time to end a water grab that has hurt the Panhandle's ecosystem and seafood industry.
The three states have battled in court for nearly 20 years over the operation of a federal dam and reservoir that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built on the Chattahoochee River north of Atlanta in 1960. Magnuson found that the corps built the Buford Dam and its reservoir, Lake Lanier, for three purposes: To create hydroelectric power, control flooding and to improve navigation. But over the decades, the metro Atlanta area withdrew water from the lake to slake the thirst of its fast-growing suburbs. Florida and Alabama argued the withdrawals were illegal because the corps never asked Congress to change the dam's purpose. Magnuson gave Georgia three years to obtain congressional approval or cut a deal with the other states. Otherwise, nearly all the withdrawals must stop.
That Georgia could cause such a monumental waste of natural resources and taxpayers' time and money over so many years is enough to drive a person to a drink stronger than water. The court was right to give Georgia some time; three years may not be long enough to wean Atlanta away from its reliance on Lake Lanier, but it does ratchet up the pressure on Georgia to settle with Florida and Alabama. The governors of those two states hailed the ruling, in part because Georgia has been so obstinate in coming to the bargaining table. This ruling should help.
Any settlement must ensure adequate water flow to the entire Apalachicola-Chattahoochee river basin. Fish and wildlife downstream of the reservoir depend on it. Apalachicola Bay has a leading place in Florida's seafood and tourism industries. The battle is not between people and shellfish. Georgia needs to change its consumption habits. It allowed Atlanta to grow almost unchecked and did little about water conservation. Florida may have leverage, but it needs to come to the bargaining table with a regional plan to manage the basin's water resources. This state can hardly preen as a model for sustainable growth. A bit of recognition on that point might prod Georgia along toward a water-sharing arrangement the Florida Panhandle needs.