US Army Corps of Engineers says it has the authority to grant Georgia water

ATLANTA — Federal officials responsible for a dam at the center of a long-running water dispute between Alabama, Florida and Georgia say they have the legal authority to give metro Atlanta more water, though the agency has not yet decided how much to release.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in documents released Tuesday that it can legally grant a 2000 request from Georgia to get 705 million gallons of water per day from Lake Lanier on the Chattahoochee River by 2030. The federal agency said it will need to conduct an environmental review before making any final decisions on exactly how much water Atlanta should get.

Federal officials said Geor­gia would have to live up to its promise to return more than 100 million gallons of treated water daily to the lake.

The corps’ decision became public after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene in a dispute over metro Atlanta’s use of water from a federal reservoir that serves all three southeastern states.

The Chattahoochee River flows past Atlanta, then runs along the border of Alabama and Georgia. It merges with the Flint River at the Florida border to form the Apalachicola River, which cuts through the Florida Panhandle and empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said he welcomed the corps’ report as federal officials prepare to decide how much water Atlanta can get.

If it’s fully granted, At­lanta-area water officials expect their old request for water might serve the region longer than the originally projected 2030 because conservation steps and a bad economy have reduced water use.

Although the latest court rulings have been favorable to metro Atlanta, they do not mean the legal dispute is over. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said the corps must still make additional reviews before deciding to release more water to Atlanta. As part of that process, Army officials must consider downstream views.

“Alabama will be a full participant in that review in order to ensure that vital downstream interests are protected,” Bentley spokesman Jeremy King said.

Authorities in Alabama and Florida have argued that Congress permitted the construction of the dam at Lake Lanier to control floods, produce electricity and make river navigation easier, but not to supply drinking water. The neighboring states and communities in south Georgia accuse the Atlanta region of taking too much water.

In 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson found that metro Atlanta had little right to water from Lake Lanier and threatened to reduce water withdrawals to levels last seen in the 1970s.

But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed aside that decision last year, deciding it was legal for metro Atlanta to use Lake Lanier as a water supply. The appeals court gave Army officials one year to re-evaluate Georgia’s request for more water.

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