Lake Lanier Case a Lesson on Water Resources and Land Use Planning

by Yee Huang

August 27, 2009

In July, a federal judge settled a nearly 20-year legal dispute among Alabama, Florida, and Georgia over the use of water from Lake Lanier, dealing a tough blow to Georgia. The Army Corps of Engineers constructed Buford Dam in the 1950s, creating Lake Lanier as a reservoir for flood control, navigation, and hydropower. But Atlanta and its sprawling metropolitan area came to rely on the reservoir as a water supply, and Lake Lanier today supplies water to 75 percent of the city. In 1990, Alabama and Florida filed suit against the Corps and Georgia to stop Atlanta’s use of the reservoir.

The 97-page order from Paul Magnuson of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida is clear: Atlanta’s use of water from Lake Lanier as a municipal water supply is illegal and inconsistent with the original purposes of the lake. Georgia must get Congress to approve a change in use for water from Lake Lanier, and it has 3 years to do so. With this ruling, Alabama and Florida clearly have the upper hand. Without congressional approval or some other resolution, withdrawals from the lake must return to the levels of the mid-1970s. Thus, water deliveries to Atlanta would cease completely. Only two small cities that were originally allowed to use the Lake as their water supply would be able to continue water withdrawals. The court itself recognized this order as a “draconian result” but commensurate with “how far the operation of the Buford project has strayed from the original authorization.”

Tucked away at the end of this decision is the most telling paragraph. Judge Magnuson wrote:

Too often, state, local, and even national government actors do not consider the long-term consequences of their decisions. Local governments allow unchecked growth because it increases tax revenue, but these same governments do not sufficiently plan for the resources such unchecked growth will require. Nor do individual citizens consider frequently enough their consumption of our scarce resources, absent a crisis situation such as that experienced in the ACF basin in the last few years. The problems faced in the ACF basin will continue to be repeated throughout this country, as the population grows and more undeveloped land is developed. Only by cooperating, planning, and conserving can we avoid the situations that gave rise to this litigation.

Only a handful of states, including Florida, have explicit legislation to address the nexus between land-use planning and water availability. Land-use planning is the province of local governments that are often eager to guard their power, while water allocation is typically the province of state governments. Both state and local governments are typically loath to relinquish power over their spheres, but increasing water disputes may force them into closer cooperation.

CPR Member Scholars Christine Klein and Mary Jane Angelo, along with their colleague Richard Hamann, note that arid western cities and some states have long made the connection between land use planning and water resource management. While limited water resources have not necessarily deterred urban growth, they force cities to reconceptualize growth by altering zoning plans based on groundwater availability or ensuring a 20-year water supply for new developments. Eastern states, typically graced with plentiful water, have yet to begin seriously linking the water availability and land-use. One exception, however, is Florida. Georgia and Alabama have much to learn from their southern neighbor.

In Florida, local governments control land-use planning, while five water management districts control water allocation. Although their spheres are distinct, the Florida legislature has integrated many overlapping aspects to help ensure comprehensive water supply planning (at least in theory). Local governments in Florida are required to address water issues in their comprehensive plans and base their plans on the availability of water supplies and facilities. Comprehensive plans must also address water conservation and current and projected water needs and sources.

Concurrency” or “wet growth” also links land use planning and water management. “Wet growth” is a concept that integrates concerns about water quality and availability into the patterns and location of land development. In Florida, local governments must ensure that water supplies are available for new developments. In some parts of the state, regional water supply plans are required to sustain water resources and related natural systems over a 20-year timeline. Florida’s water management districts can comment on local governments’ land use plans or plan amendments, and those comments can influence the ultimate decision to approve or alter the plans.

While Georgia and Alabama can learn from their southern neighbor, they can also one-up Florida. Overall, Klein and Angelo note, integration of land-use planning and water resource management in Florida is limited and “[does] not go far enough to ensure long-term protection of water resources and the public interest.” For years environmentalists have been urging the city of Atlanta and the Georgia Legislature to implement stronger water conservation measures and to reevaluate growth plans in light of water supplies. This latest ruling in the southern water saga, and Judge Magnuson’s admonition, may finally provide the impetus to do so.

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