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Magnuson Overturned: What Next?

July 12, 2011

Now that the dust has settled on last month’s federal appeals court ruling in the tri-state water war, it’s time to look toward what happens next (and what doesn’t).

Clearly, the tri-state negotiations go on. While the recent ruling from a three-judge panel did shift the playing field by overturning the two-year-old Magnuson ruling on use of water from Lake Lanier, it did not end the game.

This is a temporary reprieve – relieving us all of the pressure of Magnuson’s big 2012 deadline to have a tri-state agreement in hand or else revert to 1970s-era withdrawals – but it is by no means a permanent free pass, as the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Gil Rogers told the AJC at the conclusion of this story on the ruling.

Metro Atlanta still must continue striving to be a good water steward; this is important in the wider context of the water war. (In the ongoing give-and-take, that is, Georgia is most likely not done giving.) More specifically, don’t forget that there’s another whole phase in the tri-state litigation that’s still pending. Endgame this is not.

Meanwhile, the two most obvious, cost-effective solutions for Metro Atlanta’s future water supply remain the same. First, Georgia must undertake a vigorous effort at water conservation and efficiency. Second is fully examining Lake Lanier’s allocation and its storage capacity, including perhaps raising the full pool level there. These two approaches in combination can lead to what’s needed by all the players in the tri-state conflict (Georgia communities included): a lasting solution rooted in water conservation and healthy river flows to protect fish, wildlife, recreation, communities and economies throughout the ACF and ACT river basins, as well as metro Atlanta’s drinking water.

But one thing is apparent for the short term: a pressure-release valve has been opened. Judge Magnuson’s deadline of July 2012 has vanished, so there’s no need for Georgia utilities to rush headlong into expensive infrastructure solutions aimed at filling the supply gap they would face next year if Magnuson had stood.

Need an example of why that’s important? Take a look at this Gainesville Times story. “The ruling also gives area leaders pause on plans for a water treatment plant at the Cedar Creek Reservoir,” writes the Times’ Jeff Gill, who quotes City of Gainesville utility director Kelly Randall thusly:

“I feel confident that the construction phase [at Cedar Creek]… will be put off,” Randall said. “It had been scheduled to begin late this fall, but with the availability of water from Lake Lanier, there’s no reason to move forward with it sooner rather than later.”

Clearly there are still a lot of questions to answer as the tri-state dispute moves forward. But the decisions that still lie ahead in Georgia will be all the more prudent if the Appeals Court panel’s decision means our leaders can’t rush into unwise, unsustainable, expensive new water-supply projects, using the convenient excuse of a looming deadline to put taxpayers and ratepayers at considerable financial risk.

-Ben Emanuel

 

For a deep read on the appeal documentation, check out Chris Manganiello’s Georgia Water Wire post.

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