Cold water from the north Georgia mountains flows into Lake Lanier, 35 miles northeast of Atlanta. From here at the Buford Dam, it’s re-released into the Chattahoochee River. The river flows about 120 miles southeast into West Point Lake, and then hooks south to meander along the Georgia-Alabama border. It flows through a series of dams about 180 miles to Lake Seminole where it meets the Flint River to form the Apalachicola River.
The U.S. Supreme Court last month declined to hear an appeal by Alabama and Florida about Georgia’s right to take drinking water from Lake Lanier.
That lets stand a lower court’s ruling that the federal reservoir can be used to provide water for millions of metro Atlantans.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is moving forward with updating its water control manuals.
The new manuals will lay out how much water can be used for drinking, for recreation, and how much needs to be released downstream to maintain water quality in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin. All that will take about three years to complete.
Millions of people living and working along this waterway want some of it, including fishermen, boaters, homeowners, businesses and environmentalists. Sally Bethea, executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said there are a lot of competing demands.
“This river system does many things supplies drinking water, hydropower, takes away our treated waste water. You’ve got wildlife and endangered species issues, industrial issues. The trick is to figure out how to share this liquid lifeline that is so critical from north Georgia all the way to Florida,” said Bethea.
That trick has to be figured out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. When Congress authorized construction of Lake Lanier in 1946, it charged the Corps with managing the water. Everything the Corps does at the lake impacts the hundreds of miles of river downstream.
But the Corps’ water control manuals haven’t been updated in nearly a quarter century. Spokesman Pat Robins says a lot has changed since they were written in 1989.
“There’s a lot of migration shifts and population booms and things that are not there today that were there back then," said Robins.
The metro Atlanta area population has grown from nearly 3 million in 1990 to nearly 5 and a half million in 2009.
The Corps has updated water management technology to improve water quality. But Lake Lanier Operations Project Manager Tim Rainey said changing regulations have been an added consideration.
“For example, other purposes have been added, such as recreation and fish and wildlife management. Different laws have been enacted that weren’t in place previous [sic]; the National Environmental Policy Act, and various others that we now have to operate for that we didn’t consider when the project was first built,” said Rainey.
And still the biggest challenge in drafting the new manuals will be balancing the drinking water needs of people in metro Atlanta with the needs of businesses and communities downstream.
In 2000, Georgia asked the Corps of Engineers to provide 700 million gallons of water a day from Lake Lanier for metro Atlanta’s drinking supply. That triggered lawsuits from Alabama and Florida. Both states argued Congress never intended for Lanier to supply drinking water.
Now that the courts have ruled that is an acceptable purpose, Pat Robins said the Corps will review how much to release.
“We will now have to take into account some element of water supply. Don’t know exactly what that’ll be. It could be anywhere from none all the way up to the 2000 Georgia request,” said Robins.
Any plan the Corps comes up with could face legal challenges from Georgia, Florida and Alabama. A lawsuit filed by the Florida Attorney General regarding endangered sturgeon and mussels is still making its way through the courts.
This fall, the Army Corps of Engineers will ask the public to weigh in on the various needs for the water.