On July 17, 2009, federal judge Paul Magnuson answered the key question that has loomed over the 20-year tri-state water war among Georgia, Alabama and Florida—how much of the water in Lake Lanier can be used legally for metro Atlanta water supply?

His answer was stunning: none.

In a 97-page order, Magnuson chronicles the history of Lake Lanier from its authorization by Congress in 1945 for hydropower, flood control and navigation, to Atlanta Mayor Hartsfield’s decision in the 1950s against city financial support for the lake project—a miscalculation that has undermined Atlanta’s claim that it should be able to use the reservoir for water supply. Magnuson concludes that in allowing Atlanta to withdraw water from Lanier for water supply, the Corps of Engineers acted illegally.


“As we all learned in grade school, the separation of powers is fundamental to our federal government… Congress authorized and paid for Buford Dam and gave the Corps of Engineers the authority to operate the dam. Congress specified, however, that… if the Corps believed that it must operate the project in a manner contrary to Congress’ initial authorization of the project, it must so inform Congress and secure Congress’ permission to do so… Congressional approval of the reallocation of storage in Lake Lanier is required.” (Magnuson order)

Despite the clear need for Georgia to secure Congressional approval to use water from Lake Lanier to supply metro Atlanta, state leaders failed to seek such authorization, even as the region’s population exploded in the past two decades. Instead, the state vigorously pursued a doomed legal strategy, with no plan “b”.

A Wake-Up Call

Grandstanding and chest-beating by officials in all three states dominated the news in the months following the ruling. This behavior further entrenched old resentments at a time when the states needed to focus instead on solutions to share the water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin.

As draconian as the Magnuson ruling may appear, it has provided an unprecedented opportunity—some might even call it a mandate—to advance sustainable water management strategies in the ACF Basin. To accomplish this goal, Georgia must be willing to deemphasize litigation and, instead, emphasize smart, cost-effective water supply solutions, over long-term, expensive and risky ones.

The 15-county metro region has had a wake-up call that cannot be ignored. Judge Magnuson gave Georgia (read: metro Atlanta) until July 2012 to resolve its water supply problems; if this doesn’t happen, some areas in the region, as well as downstream, will be out of water and others could experience stringent water rationing.

Common Sense Solutions
Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper has been involved with the tri-state water issue for 15 years, focusing on the policy, scientific and legal decisions needed to fairly allocate the water in the ACF Basin among competing users, while leaving enough clean water in the rivers to support healthy ecosystems.

Instead of continuing to point fingers at the other states, Georgia officials must admit that metro Atlanta has a serious water problem—due to its small watershed, growing population, sprawling development, and higher than average use of water and energy (generated at water-consuming power plants).

Next, a package of conservation measures must be adopted by the state legislature in 2010. UCR and other leaders of the Georgia Water Coalition met in late August with Governor Perdue to recommend specific action items that, collectively, will yield significant water savings for the 15-county metro region. Once adopted, this legislation should help assure communities downstream in the ACF Basin that Georgia is serious about making better use of limited water supplies.

Conservation alone will not satisfy all of Atlanta’s future water demands. Officials also must evaluate existing water supply sources to determine their maximum yield, including the possibility of raising the pool at Lake Lanier, in addition to reallocating some storage for metro water supply. These actions that will require Congressional approval and direction to the Corps regarding its operation of Buford Dam and other federal reservoirs in the system, as well as careful consideration of instream flows needed to support all uses, including water quality, recreation and fishing.

Finally, but essentially, Georgia must take the lead in securing agreement among the states and government agencies on a uniform, basin-wide approach to data collection, measurement and modeling. You cannot responsibly and adaptively manage something that you do not measure and monitor.

The above solutions do not represent all the actions that must be taken to resolve the tri-state water wars; however, they are common sense strategies that can be implemented during the final year of the Perdue Administration, if there is sufficient political will.