The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to hear a case involving water allocations from Lake Lanier was certainly good news for Georgia, but it by no means put an end to the years of fighting over who has the rights to water in the Chattahoochee River basin south of Atlanta.
When a federal judge three years ago declared that water from Lake Lanier was never meant to satisfy the thirst of metro Atlanta and ordered draconian reductions in withdrawals, local and state leaders were dumbfounded. When the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals later overturned the original ruling, there was cause for celebration, but as long as there was the potential of the Supreme Court wading into the case again any celebratory efforts were muted at best.
Now that the Supreme Court has said it will not review the Appeals Court decision, we can all exhale, then take another deep breath and prepare for whatever comes next, knowing that we do so from a position strengthened by the courts.
But the Supreme Court’s announcement doesn’t mean that the tri-state water wars that have pitted Georgia, Florida and Alabama against one another for more than 20 years is a thing of the past. The battle is still there to be waged, only the battlefield has been slanted slightly in Georgia’s favor.
At some point the governors of the three states are still going to have to reach an agreement over water allocations. And at some point Congress is likely to have to become involved in giving its blessing to such an agreement. There are still political battles to be fought over the use of Lanier’s water and the management of the lake by the corps of engineers.
Still, the Supreme Court’s decision was heady stuff for state officials, offering as it does the potential to move ahead with economic development projects and plans for growth that may have been stalled by the uncertainty over whether water from Lanier could legally be used to satisfy the metro region’s needs.
The courts, however, can’t do much about the weather, and we need look back only a few years to see what serious drought conditions can do to the lake. That said, the impetus to build new reservoirs to serve the area that began during those drought conditions cannot be lost, even though the cost for doing so is high.
The permitting and building process for a new reservoir can take years to complete, in some instances more than a decade, so we can’t afford to sit on our laurels now and bask in the knowledge that the latest court ruling went our way.
Nor can we afford to forget the lessons of conservation learned the last time the waters of Lake Lanier receded to unprecedented levels during drought conditions.
As a society it is our habit to adopt such measures in times of crisis and abandon them when the crisis is over. We can’t afford to do that with the region’s water.
The court’s decision was certainly a victory for Georgia, but it is too early to declare a victory — or even a truce — in the ongoing war over water.