Tri-State Water Wars

Welcome to the Tri-State Water Wars Resource Center. This section of the website is designed for interested citizens, elected officials, the news media and other stakeholders, within the region and beyond. It includes information and documents about the range of issues connected to the tri-state water litigation. Topics include:

Background of the Tri-State Litigation

  • In September 1988, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommended that some of the water stored in Lake Lanier for hydropower use be reallocated for water supply. Alabama filed suit in 1990 to prevent the Corps from entering into agreements for water supply from Lake Lanier. Florida joined the suit.
  • The three states and the Corps agreed in 1992 to support a comprehensive study of the resource and to provide water supply on an interim basis as needed during the study.
  • In 1997, an Interstate Water Compact, ratified by Congress, created a commission to allocate water among the states. Negotiations continued through the rest of the 1990s and beyond, but they ultimately proved unsuccessful. The ACF compact expired in 2003, and the earlier lawsuits by Florida and Alabama were reactivated.

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Overview of the Tri-State Litigation

The tri-state litigation involves eight cases in two district courts. Seven of those cases concern issues in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) basin and one concerns issues in the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) basin. 

  • The dispute includes Lake Lanier, which is located in the ACF basin, and Lake Allatoona, which is located in the ACT basin. 
  • The ACF litigation involves Florida, Georgia and Alabama. 
  • The ACT litigation involves Georgia and Alabama. 
  • The seven cases concerning the ACF basin were consolidated and assigned to the United States District Court in Jacksonville to be heard by a retired chief judge from Minnesota, Judge Paul Magnuson. 
  • Judge Magnuson separated the case into two phases. The first phase deals with the challenge to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ authority to operate Lake Lanier for water supply and recreation (ruling issued July 17, 2009).
  • The second phase deals with the Endangered Species Act and its impact on water supply and allocation. Judge Magnuson issued his ruling July 21, 2010.
  • The case concerning issues in the ACT basin was stayed to allow the states to negotiate in good faith. 

ACT basin

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Federal Court Ruling in Phase 1 (July 17, 2009)

  • Based on his interpretation of Congressional action in 1946, Judge Magnuson ruled that the only authorized purposes for Lake Lanier are hydropower, flood control and navigation. 
  • Judge Magnuson has given a window of three years to obtain approval from Congress for the operational changes that are necessary to allow water from Lake Lanier to continue to be used for water supply purposes. 
  • Failure to gain this approval from Congress in the next three years will result in the operation of Buford Dam reverting to “base line” operations of the mid-1970s. 
  • Memorandum and Order of the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, In re Tri-State Water Rights Litigation (PDF)
  • The State of Georgia, the other Georgia parties (ARC, Cobb County Marietta Water Authority, the City of Atlanta, DeKalb County, Atlanta-Fulton Water Resources Commission, the City of Gainesville and Gwinnett County) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers appealed the ruling in September 2009.
  • The 11th Circuit agreed to hear the appeal

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ARC’s Position on the July 17, 2009 Ruling

  • Returning metro Atlanta’s water withdrawals in three years to mid-1970s levels would present a public health and safety threat to the 3 million people of metro Atlanta who depend on Lake Lanier for water supply. Downstream communities would be harmed as well. 
  • It would also impact the economy of the entire Southeastern United States. 
  • ARC supports efforts to negotiate an agreement for the equitable allocation of water among the three states. 
  • Once an agreement is reached, it is imperative that Congress act quickly to head off this potential calamity. 
  • There is enough water in the ACF basin to meet the reasonable needs of all users if the reservoirs are managed properly and if all users practice best-in-class conservation. 
  • Remarks by Sam Olens (then chairman of ARC) to the Council for Quality Growth, August 14, 2009 (PDF)

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Appeal of Phase 1 Ruling: Issues Resolved by the 11th Circuit, June 28, 2011

  • The July 2012 deadline is gone. The 11th Circuit overruled Judge Magnuson’s order that would have cut off water supply to millions of people.
  • Downstream water supply is an authorized purpose of Lake Lanier:
  • The court of appeals found that the 1946 legislation authorizing the construction of Buford Dam also authorizes the Corps to operate Lake Lanier to support metro Atlanta’s water withdrawals from the river downstream of Buford Dam.
  • The appeals court also rejected Judge Magnuson’s analysis of the Water Supply Act of 1958.
  • The 11th Circuit held that the Water Supply Act provides additional authority, over and above the authority provided by the original legislation, to operate the reservoir for water supply. The appeals court ruled that the case should be remanded to the Corps to determine the full extent of this authority.
  • The 11th Circuit gave the Corps a year to determine the extent of its authority
  • This holding is important to Gwinnett County and others who withdraw directly from the lake.
  • Appellants (challenging Judge Magnuson’s order): State of Georgia, Atlanta Regional Commission, City of Atlanta, Fulton County, DeKalb County, Cobb County- Marietta Water Authority, and the City of Gainesville, Gwinnett County and the United States. Although not parties to the litigation, the Georgia Association of Water Professionals and the American Council of Engineering Companies of Georgia also submitted “friend of the court” briefs to support the appellants.
  • Appellees (defending the order): Alabama, Florida, Alabama Power Company, City of Apalachicola, and the Southeastern Federal Power Customers. Although not parties to the litigation, the American Public Power Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association also submitted “friend of the court” briefs to support the appellants.
  • 11th Circuit Court Ruling (PDF)
  • Statement from Tad Leithead, ARC chair, re the 11th Circuit Ruling (PDF)
  • Statement from Mayor Boyd Austin, Metro Water District chair, re the 11th Circuit Ruling (PDF)

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Federal Court Ruling in Phase 2 (July 21, 2010)

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Sources of Water in Metro Atlanta

  • Metro Atlanta obtains 99 percent of its water supply from rivers, lakes and streams. 
  • Groundwater cannot be a major source of supply because the bedrock is nonporous hard rock, like Stone Mountain granite. 
  • Rainfall is variable, from as low as 30 inches per year to as high as 70 inches per year, with an average of 50 inches per year. 
  • There are no natural lakes in North Georgia. Therefore, metro Atlanta must use man-made reservoirs to store water during rainy periods to use during dry times and drought. 
  • There are two federal reservoirs that are used for water supply in metro Atlanta: Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona. 
    Lake Lanier is located in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin. 
  • Lake Allatoona is located in the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) River Basin 
  • Three million residents in metro Atlanta rely on Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River as their source of drinking water; a half million metro Atlantans depend on Lake Allatoona. 
  • Gwinnett and Forsyth counties and the cities of Gainesville, Buford and Cumming withdraw water directly from Lake Lanier. 
  • City of Atlanta, Atlanta-Fulton County Water Resources Commission, DeKalb County and the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority withdraw water from the Chattahoochee River, south of Lake Lanier. 
  • The Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority and the City of Cartersville withdraw water from Lake Allatoona. These utilities serve residents of Bartow, Cobb and Paulding counties in northwestern metro Atlanta.

 

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Facts about the ACF Basin

  • The Army Corps of Engineers operates five reservoirs on the Chattahoochee River: Lake Lanier, West Point Lake, Lake Walter F. Georgia, Andrews Lock and Dam and Lake Seminole.
  • Lake Lanier is the northernmost federal reservoir in the ACF Basin. It sits at the top of the basin and is a headwaters reservoir.
  • Its location in the basin limits how much water it can capture and store.
  • Lake Lanier has only 5.3 percent of the ACF Basin land area above it, so it controls only a small part of the rain that falls in the basin.
  • Although Lanier is a large reservoir and represents 60 percent of the storage in the federal system, it controls only 9 percent of the total river flows above the Florida state line.
  • It is not possible to drought proof an entire basin with a reservoir that controls less than 9% of the basin’s flow.
  • Flows at the Florida line are 11 times greater than at Buford Dam, because most of the streams in the basin enter the system downstream of the dam.
  • Nearly three quarters of the population in the ACF basin (72 percent) resides in metro Atlanta.

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Metro Atlanta’s Water Use

 

 Net Consumptive Use (during non-drought)

 Upper Chattahoochee*  Middle and Lower Chattahoochee
 125 mgd                              143 mgd
 194 cfs  222 cfs
 0.9% of average annual flow           1% of average annual flow

*Lanier-dependent withdrawers

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Water Conservation in Metro Atlanta

  • The Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District was created in 2001. Its first series of plans were adopted in 2003. Updates of these plans were adopted in May of 2009.
  • There are 15 counties, 92 cities and 61 water systems in the Metro Water District. No where else in the country brings together this many local governments and utilities to plan and implement a common set of water conservation measures. Implementation is required, and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division enforces compliance with the plans through its auditing and permitting processes.
  • The Metro Water District's Water Supply and Water Conservation Plan included 19 water conservation measures:
    • Implement conservation pricing.
    • Implement a program to replace older, inefficient toilets.
    • Educate food services on retrofitting with low-flow pre-rinse spray valves.
    • Require rain sensor shut-off switches on new irrigation systems.
    • Require sub-unit meters in new multi-family buildings.
    • Assess water loss annually and implement program to reduce water system leakage.
    • Provide residential water audit information to residential customers.
    • Distribute low-flow retrofit kits to residential customers.
    • Provide commercial water audits; target high water users.
    • Implement education and public awareness plan.
    • Install High Efficiency Toilets and Urinals in government buildings.
    • Require new car washes to recycle water.
    • Expedited Water Loss Reduction (Chattahoochee Basin only)
    • Family HET Rebates (Chattahoochee Basin only)
    • Point of Use Leak Detection Meters (Chattahoochee Basin only)
    • Private Fire Line Meters (Chattahoochee Basin only)
    • Dedicated Water Conservation Programs (Chattahoochee Basin only)
    • Water Waste Policy
    • High Efficiency Plumbing Fixtures 
  • 2001 billing data established water use in the Metro Water District to be 168 gallons per capita per day (gpcd). GPCD computed by dividing total water demand by Metro Water District's population. It includes commercial, industrial, institutional as well as residential uses.
  • Water conservation is making a difference. Per capita water use has decreased 27 percent since 2001. While some of that drop has resulted from the recession, water conservation is making a difference.

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Statewide Water Planning

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Speeches, Presentations and Op-Ed Articles

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Editorials and News Stories

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Links

  • ACF Stakeholders Group. This grassroots organization represented stakeholders in the ACF basin who are seeking ways to work together and exploring possible solutions to the tri-state conflict.
  • Lake Lanier Association. This organization represents homeowners, businesses and others and serves as an advocate for Lake Lanier.

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