Fighting for Atlanta’s water: what was it I was saying about lawyers?

In a thread last month, Francis offered this as one explanation for the prominence of lawyers in western US water policy discussions:

The states are co-equal sovereigns, and the feds have not invoked federal supremacy.

It applies elsewhere. In Georgia, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, the state will go to court next week to argue for nothing less than Atlanta’s water supply:

On Wednesday, the state of Georgia will ask the federal appeals court in Atlanta to overturn a judge’s ruling that found it illegal for the Army Corps of Engineers to draw water from Lake Lanier to meet most of the metro area’s needs.

In that shock-and-awe ruling in 2009, Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson set a doomsday clock ticking. If Georgia, Alabama and Florida cannot arrive at a water-sharing agreement that is approved by Congress by July 17, 2012, metro Atlanta can only take the same amount of water it received in the mid-1970s.

That this may come down to lawyers arguing in court is an interesting outcome. The other potential solution is an agreement among states, which as I’ve discussed before in a post on former Reclamation commissioner Bob Johnson’s comments on the issue, seems to this westerner a perfectly reasonable approach given how wet it is out there:

The ACT and ACF basins have far more unallocated water to play with in sorting out the conflicts. “They’ve got 60 million acre feet of excess water,” he said. “On the Colorado River, we’ve got zero.”

But as a direct result of that lack of water on the Colorado, we’ve got a rich legal framework – the Law of the River – and accompanying personal and institutional relationships to go with it. “We have 80 years of fighting and working together,” Johnson said to the audience of Colorado River Basin water officials.

By comparison, in the wet climate of the southeast, water officials had few relationships with their colleagues in other states, and few institutional structures through which they could deal with problems when they arose, Johnson argued. In other words, they have plenty of water, but lack the tools they need to approach the problem of sharing. Because they’ve never had to think of it that way.

So while it may be true that we’ve got a lot of lawyers involved out west, the lawyering has so far avoided a major city going dry. But here we are, watching a federal court in Atlanta next week looking for a solution to what could be the nation’s biggest water problem: Atlanta (average rainfall 50 inches/125cm a year) going dry.