Opinion

High court asked to issue ruling in water dispute

This was probably inevitable, but that makes it no less regrettable.

The Atlanta Business Chronicle reported Monday that attorneys for Alabama and Florida have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case for why more Chattahoochee River water should flow south of Atlanta and less should be impounded north of it.

The two states are appealing a ruling last summer by the Atlanta-based U.S. 11th District Court of Appeals that water supply for Atlanta is a legitimate use for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-operated Buford Dam impoundment, more commonly known as Lake Lanier. That ruling overturned a 2009 decision by Federal Judge Paul Magnuson that the Corps cannot authorize a federal project for local demands.

Florida’s appeal also cites the Water Supply Act of 1958, arguing that the Corps must obtain congressional approval for such a reallocation.

This dispute seems to have been bound for the Supreme Court for at least 20 years, and probably longer. Attempts to negotiate interstate water compacts -- some in good faith, some out of transparent political and/or economic self-interest -- have come to little or nothing.

Alabama and Florida have an easier case to make, at least in terms of intrastate politics: Their water constituencies are not divided. It’s a somewhat different story in Georgia, where the dispute has been as much a civil war as an interstate one. Middle and lower Chattahoochee stakeholders, particularly Columbus, LaGrange and business and property owners around West Point Lake (also a Corps lake) have long been concerned about Atlanta’s thirst, and about the state leadership’s seeming determination to slake it even at other Georgians’ expense.

The dispute was so intense a few years ago that a group of public and private downriver Georgia interests, including the cities of LaGrange and Columbus, the Columbus Water Works and others, actually submitted arguments siding against Georgia and with the other states in a case then in the federal courts.

Not long afterward, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue used the occasion of a public forum at Columbus Technical College to remind some of his balky middle- and lower Chattahoochee constituents that Alabama and Florida are not committed to the water needs of west Georgia.

That’s correct, as far as it goes. But to the extent that those states were (and are) demanding more downriver flow, they are at the very least allies of convenience if not of completely mutual interest.

This latest filing adds still more urgency to the importance of renewed interstate negotiation, if in fact a workable agreement is still even possible. It must of course include an adequate water supply for Georgia’s and the South’s most important city. It must not be an open-ended commitment to supply Atlanta’s uncontrolled growth indefinitely.

And that hardly subtle distinction is where this has stayed hung up now for more than 20 years.

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