Atlanta won a big victory today when the Supreme Court turned down appeals from Florida and Alabama, essentially upholding the Georgia city’s right to use water from the Army Corps of Engineers’ Lake Lanier. At least that’s how Atlanta boosters quoted in the Atlanta Journal Constitution are framing it:
Shortly after the high court made its announcement, Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, took the stage at a Rotary Club of Atlanta meeting wearing a broad smile.
“We can legally drink the water of Lake Lanier,” Williams said to booming applause throughout the banquet hall.
The much-anticipated decision could have monumental ramifications for economic development across the state and growth of the metro region.
But framing it as victory for Atlanta may not be quite right. It’s more like avoidance of defeat. Left untouched is the thorny and completely unresolved problem of the needs of Georgia, Alabama and Florida to figure out how to share a common pool resolved.
The courts’ decision here is narrow, and has nothing to do with who’s entitled to how much of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basins. The issue in today’s ruling was simply whether Atlanta was properly legally authorized by Congressional legislation to use water from the Corps-built dam. Lower courts had said “no”, which would have dried Atlanta’s water supply completely. But now that the court has said it’s OK for Atlanta to use that water, the states still need to negotiate a deal on who’s entitled to how much. Again, from the AJC:
George William Sherk, an attorney specializing in water law and who wrote a history of Lake Lanier, said Georgia should not begin cheering just yet.
“Practically, it solves nothing,” Sherk said, referring to the high court’s decision. There still has yet to be a decision as to exactly how much water is legally available to metro Atlanta, he noted.
I’ve written previously about the difference between the Southeastern river basins and our water management out West. We don’t have much water, and as a result we have a rich history of understanding how to negotiate among ourselves. In the Southeast, there’s lots of water, and as a result there is less of the institutional infrastructure needed to pull off complex transboundary water deals.
From a water policy perspective, the next steps will be very interesting.