The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) has the authority to allocate additional water from Lake Lanier to meet Atlanta’s water supply needs. In re: MDL-1824 Tri-State Water Rights Litig., No. 09-14657 (11th Cir. 6/28/11). The court reversed a district court’s findings and conclusions in four lawsuits which held that Congress must approve metropolitan Atlanta’s use of Lake Lanier water.

The ruling follows more than two decades of litigation involving Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and the Corps over sharing of water within the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin. The litigation focused primarily on the Corps’ operation of four dams on the Chattahoochee River, the largest of which forms Lake Lanier, located north of Atlanta. Alabama and Florida argued that Atlanta’s water withdrawals compromised water quality downstream and threatened endangered species. The district court ruled that the Corps acted unlawfully when it diverted water from Lake Lanier for municipal and industrial water supply needs rather than for hydropower generation, flood control and navigation, the primary purposes authorized by Congress.

The appellate court ruled that using the lake for water supply did not constitute a major operational change under the Water Supply Act of 1958, which requires congressional approval of project modifications that “would seriously affect the purposes for which the project was authorized . . . or . . . would involve major structural or operational changes.” The court also opined that Congress did not intend to harm Atlanta’s water supply when it provided construction funding for Lake Lanier in 1946.

The court noted that in the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1946, supplying water to Atlanta was listed as one of the “primary purposes” of the project, along with power generation, flood control and navigation. The court also rejected a Corps’ argument that it had “broad discretion to decide how to manage the project.” It remanded the Corps’ rejection of Georgia’s request in 2000 for additional water and gave the agency one year to issue a decision on the increased water output.