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Federal Judge: Congress Must OK Atlanta Water Use

A federal judge on Friday ordered neighboring states to freeze water sharing at current levels for three years while Congress hammers out how to divvy up the flow from Lake Lanier near Atlanta.

Nine weeks after taking testimony in a water war between Florida, Alabama and Georgia, Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson called on Congress to settle the dispute within that three year timeframe. If not, water distribution would revert back to a baseline arrangement forged in the 1970s when Atlanta was a fourth its current size, leaving a huge metro area to try to find a new source for water.

Georgia officials have asked that more water from Lake Lanier be allowed to remain within the state to quench the thirst of a teeming Atlanta area, now home to about 5.3 million people.

Florida and Alabama officials, meanwhile, want water from the river system for hydroelectric power, navigation and freshwater flow critical to Florida’s shellfish industry.

The three states and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been in litigation over sharing the waters within the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin, or ACF, for nearly two decades. The disputes have focused primarily on the Corps’ operation of its four Chattahoochee River dams.

The largest is Buford Dam, which forms Lake Lanier located north of Atlanta. Local officials, with the Corps approval, have been diverting more water from the reservoir as the region booms.

Florida and Alabama argued that Congress must approve any water use agreements in the ACF basin. In his ruling Friday, Magnuson, a Minnesota-based judge tapped in 2007 to oversee the tri-state dispute, agreed.

“Congress reserved to itself the power to change the purposes for federal projects such as the Buford Dam project,” Magnuson concluded in the 97-page ruling. “The executive branch simply may not circumvent that authority. Congressional approval of the reallocation of storage in Lake Lanier is required.”

Florida officials were immediately relieved.

“Today’s ruling is a monumental milestone in the 18-year battle between Florida, Alabama and Georgia over the waters of the ACF basin, underscoring the importance of the Apalachicola’s environment and economy,” Gov. Charlie Crist said in a statement. “The Judge’s decision allows the governors to come together to reach an agreement outside of the court system. I look forward to working with Governors (Bob) Riley and (Sonny) Perdue to find a solution that will be beneficial for all of our states.”

Florida officials have said reduced water flow into Apalachicola Bay threatens the state’s shellfish industry by increasing the salinity of bay waters. Too much salt in the water hurts the oyster industry critical to the region’s economy, state officials contend.

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