The city of Atlanta dodged a bullet recently when federal courts ruled that it can indeed use Lake Lanier as a municipal water source.
In 2009, a federal district court ruled that Atlanta had no right to use Lake Lanier as a water supply. But in 2011, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling. Appeals of that ruling were recently exhausted, ensuring Atlanta's access to the water but leaving the details to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps is currently conducting a study of the entire Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola river system to determine what Atlanta will be allowed to use without adversely affecting communities and ecosystems downstream.
With that as a backdrop, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson last week hand-delivered a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal outlining what Columbus needs from the Chattahoochee River for economic growth, wastewater assimilation and recreation, including the city's whitewater rafting project.
"The state knows well the need for sustained and balanced growth throughout Georgia," Tomlinson wrote to Deal. "The economic viability of Columbus/Fort Benning directly impacts a dozen or more counties in this southwest region of the state and must be preserved to ensure growth in southwest Georgia."
While Deal can exert influence over regulations and legislation that would require conservation in the metro Atlanta area, reducing its reliance on Lanier, it is the Corps of Engineers that will decide how much water it will be allowed.
Tomlinson also delivered to Deal a copy of a letter written to the Corps by Fort Benning Garrison Commander Col. Jeffrey Fletcher stating that the post's needs are the same as Columbus -- a daily flow of 1,350 cubic feet per second.
"Maintaining the minimum flows referenced above will ensure no disruption of our training and deployment missions as well as supporting our commitment to environmental stewardship," Fletcher wrote. "I therefore request you give strong consideration to formalizing these flows in your operating plan."
Columbus Water Works President Steve Davis said he expects the Corps' study to take about two years, and he's confident that the city and Fort Benning will get the flow they need.
"These flows historically have been met in the river, so essentially all Columbus is asking for and has been asking for is to maintain the flows that we've been seeing."
Davis also said downstream environmental concerns, which are backed up by federal law, work in Columbus' and Fort Benning's favor.
"We're somewhat protected because south of us the Endangered Species Act requires about 5,000 cfs," Davis said. "Now that's both the Chattahoochee and the Flint combined to meet that flow, but when water gets scarce in dry conditions like we have now, Lanier and West Point are releasing water to meet that flow. Columbus is in the path of that flow need downstream."
Tomlinson delivered her and Fletcher's letters to Deal at a luncheon last week in Atlanta at which the governor hosted mayors and county leaders and spoke about water challenges facing the state.
She said the experience was encouraging in that she saw that Deal is genuine in his desire to settle the long-running tri-state water war between Georgia, Alabama and Florida, and from a perspective that includes those downstream and not just the metro Atlanta needs.
"You just got the feeling that there was, perhaps for the first time, a real possibility for resolution with our neighbors," she said. "But also, for the first time, you saw a real appreciation for the other communities, and the other communities wanting to be on the same page."