Tri-State Water Wars: 25 Years of Litigation between Alabama, Florida and Georgia

Two river basins supply water to metropolitan Atlanta—the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin (Georgia, Florida, and Alabama) and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) River Basin (Georgia and Alabama). In the ACF Basin, some metropolitan Atlanta communities withdraw water directly from Lake Lanier, while others withdraw their water from the Chattahoochee River downstream of the Lake. In the ACT Basin, the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority and City of Cartersville withdraw water from Allatoona Lake, while others withdraw water from the Etowah River both upstream and downstream of the lake. In both Basins, these communities depend on the ability store water in Lake Lanier and Allatoona Lake so they can meet the critical water supply needs of the citizens and businesses in the metropolitan Atlanta region.

ACT and ACF River Basins

The ACF and ACT Basins have been immersed in litigation for over two decades. The first round of cases (from 1990 to 2012) involved 8 separate cases in six different district courts, all challenging various aspects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (“Corps”) operation of its reservoirs. Certain of these cases focused on the Corps’ water supply operations and the withdrawals by metropolitan Atlanta. Others challenged the Corps’ compliance with environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Even after two decades of litigation, significant issues remain to be resolved. In 2011, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a critical decision finding that water supply is a congressionally authorized purpose of Lake Lanier, and directing the Corps to address metropolitan Atlanta’s water supply withdrawals with that understanding in mind. 

At the same time, the court found that Alabama, Florida, and others had jumped the gun by filing suit to challenge the Corps’ water supply operations before the Army Corps of Engineers had taken final action. Thus, the court ultimately dismissed these cases for lack of jurisdiction without reaching the merits of the various cases. This decision was effectively affirmed by the United States Supreme Court in 2012.

With the first round of litigation concluded, the controversy moved from the courts to the Corps, which is now in the process of updating its water control manuals for both basins. A new manual for the ACT Basin is expected before the end of 2014; and a new manual for the ACF Basin is expected before 2017.

Meanwhile, in October 2013, Florida asked the United States Supreme Court for permission to sue Georgia for an “equitable apportionment” of the waters of the ACF Basin. The Supreme Court must agree to hear this type of case before it is filed. The Court announced on November 3, 2014 that it will hear the case.

Background of the Tri-State Litigation

Water_DiagramAllatoonia.png
WaterDiagram_Lanier.png

  • In the late 1980s, the Corps issued draft reports recommending that additional storage space in Lake Lanier and Allatoona Lake be used to store water for municipal and industrial water supply.
  • Alabama filed suit in 1990 to prevent the Corps from finalizing the draft reports, and from entering into storage contracts with metro area water utilities. Florida joined the suit.
  • Shortly after Alabama’s suit was filed, Alabama and the Corps agreed to put the litigation—and the proposed contracts—on hold. In 1992, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and the Corps entered into a Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to suspend the litigation while conducting a comprehensive study of the water resources in the two basins. The states and the Corps also agreed that water users could continue to withdraw what they needed, and even increase their withdrawals to meet reasonable increases in demand, while the study was in progress.
  • The comprehensive study was never completed, but it led to the ratification of interstate water compacts for each basin in 1997. The compacts were really just agreements to negotiate—they established a framework for the negotiation of a formula to divide the water among the three states. However, negotiations on the formulas failed in the ACF in 2003 and in the ACT in 2004, at which point the compacts dissolved.
  • Litigation resumed after the compacts failed.

About the ACF Lawsuits (See also About the ACT Lawsuits)

 1900

The State of Alabama begins the litigation by filing suit against the Corps to block proposed actions in the ACF and ACT basins.

Over time, other lawsuits by various parties are filed and eventually all of the ACF cases are consolidated in federal court in Jacksonville, Florida before Judge Paul Magnuson. The cases were heard in two phases – one addressing challenges to the Corps of Engineers’ authority to operate Lake Lanier for water supply and the second dealing with issues surrounding the Endangered Species Act.

 July 17, 2009

Judge Magnuson issues a ruling declaring that water supply is not an authorized purpose of Lake Lanier, and imposes a “draconian” injunction that would have cut metropolitan Atlanta’s water supply in half. Georgia is given three years to obtain Congressional approval for additional authorization.

Memorandum and Order of the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, In re Tri-State Water Rights Litigation (PDF)

 September 2009

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 appeal the district court ruling. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agrees to hear the case, over Alabama and Florida’s objection.

 July 21, 2010

Judge Magnuson rules on environmental claims in the case. He rejects all of Florida’s claims under the Endangered Species Act. He also explains that the Corps must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, and consider all reasonable alternatives for the operation of Lake Lanier, including water supply. Indeed, he notes that any plan that failed to do so would be a “useless document.”

Memorandum and Order of the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida in phase 2 of the Tri-State Water Rights Litigation (PDF)

11th Circuit Issues Decision; Supreme Court Refuses Review

June 28, 2011 

The 11th Circuit overturns Judge Magnuson’s decision, finding that that water supply is a fully authorized purpose of Lake Lanier.

The 11th Circuit gives the Corps one year to reevaluate its ability to meet metro Atlanta’s future water supply needs in light of the court’s conclusion that water supply is an authorized purpose of Lake Lanier. 

11th Circuit Court Ruling (PDF)


 June 25, 2012

As directed by the 11th Circuit, the Corps issues a legal opinion concluding that it is authorized to grant Georgia’s entire water supply request, which would allow withdrawals from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River of 705 million gallons per day. The opinion states, however, that an environmental impact statement would need to be completed before any final decisions can be made.

The Corps' Opinion (PDF)


 June 2012

On the same day the Corps releases its opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively upholds the 11th Circuit’s ruling by denying Alabama’s and Florida’s requests to review the 11th Circuit’s key holding that water supply is an authorized purpose of Lake Lanier.

U.S. Supreme Court: Equitable Apportionment

October 2013 

Florida submits a request to the U.S. Supreme Court for permission to file a lawsuit against Georgia requesting an “equitable apportionment” of the waters of the ACF Basin. An equitable apportionment is a decree stating how much water each State can use. Florida’s lawsuit can only proceed if the Court agrees to hear the case. 

November 3, 2014

The Supreme Court grants Florida’s motion to file its case against Georgia related to the equitable apportionment of the waters in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) basin. The next step in the case will be for Georgia to file an answer to Florida’s complaint. The Court will then likely appoint a special master to oversee the case.

 

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