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Water wars: Metro Atlanta to fund $3.9 million for research to use in legal defenses

By David Pendered

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a new cost for the project as provided by the Atlanta Regional Commission.

The big water war with Florida is over, but funding of a $3.9 million legal and research effort is moving forward to prepare for ongoing litigation over water use by metro Atlanta and Georgia.

The Army Corps of Engineers management of water flow through the Walter F. George Lake and other lakes along the Chattahoochee River was upheld Aug. 12 by a federal judge in Atlanta. (Photo by David Pendered)

The latest ruling that seems destined for appeal was issued Aug. 11 in Atlanta. The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash, Jr. benefitted Georgia. One or more of the original plaintiffs expected to appeal the ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Atlanta. The original case was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. and transferred to Atlanta.

On April 1, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Georgia’s favor against Florida’s claims that Georgia’s overconsumption of water hurt the Apalachicola Bay and its renown oystery. The ruling indicated Georgia should be prepared to continue to defend its position on water consumed in Georgia or retained by dams built and controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Writing for the court, Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett observed:

  • “Of course, the precise causes of the Bay’s oyster collapse remain a subject of ongoing scientific debate. As judges, we lack the expertise to settle that debate and do not purport to do so here….

To help defend Georgia’s interests in these disputes, the Atlanta Regional Commission is to continue a role it first assumed in 1992 – overseeing the legal and research effort to defend against litigation. The upcoming ARC program is to receive funding from five utilities that provide water to millions of metro Atlanta consumers:

river basins

Metro Atlanta water utilities plan to continue to prepare legal defenses to challenges to the consumption and storage of water in two river basins that cross state lines. (File image)

  • City of Atlanta;
  • Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority;
  • DeKalb County;
  • Atlanta-Fulton County Water Resources Commission;
  • Gwinnett County.

The research and legal efforts are to focus on the Chattahoochee River, Lake Lanier and Allatoona Lake. These waters are part of two basins that drains from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico – the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin.

The Atlanta City Council is slated to approve the city’s share, $900,000, at its Sept. 7 meeting. The sum covers $600,000 in Atlanta’s role as a water supplier, and $300,000 in its role as a joint venture with Fulton County. The council’s usual Monday meeting has been delayed because of the Labor Day holiday, on Sept. 6.

This three-year project legal and research project oversees the gathering of technical information and legal resources to defend the region, and state, in the ongoing disputes over water consumed in Georgia and stored in dams built and controlled by the corps.

Complaints are often rooted in the notion that interests in Alabama and Florida are hurt by one or two claims – metro Atlanta and Georgia consume more than their share of rivers that flow across state lines; and/or water withheld by one or more of the corps’ five dams reduces water flow such that creatures that live down river from the dam are harmed.

Terms pending before the Atlanta City Council call for the agreement with the ARC to cover the period July 1 through June 30, 2024. The final two years of the three-year agreement are to be funding if the council provides the money in the budgets for each of those years. The money is to come from the city’s Water and Wastewater Revenue Fund.


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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