Combatants in a decades-long water war pitting competing interests from Apalachicola to Atlanta may learn this week whether their battle piques the interest of the nation's highest court.
The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to meet Thursday to decide if it wants to wade into a tri-state, cross border feud over water flow in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin, an interconnected system linking Lake Lanier north of Atlanta to the Florida gulf coast.
The high court is scheduled to decide whether to take up a dispute between Alabama, Georgia and Florida over who gets to decide where the water goes from the dammed lake under a series of agreements originally penned between federal officials and the states more than 50 years ago. The issue has been embroiled in lawsuits off and on since 1990.
The fight targets the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' control over the Buford Dam, which not only holds back the water that is now Lake Lanier but determines the water flow to the river systems farther south.
Metropolitan Atlanta, which draws water from Lake Lanier, has seen its population swell from under 1 million in 1960 to 5.8 million today.
Georgia argues the water needs of the teeming city outweigh the minimum flow requirements. Further, as operator of the Buford Dam, the Corps has the flexibility to open the tap to the Atlanta area without an act of Congress, the state says.
Alabama and Florida officials say water flow is needed to maintain river levels, contributing to power generation, navigation, recreation and Florida's commercial seafood industry. Further, they say it's up to Congress, not the Corps, to determine once and for all if that role is to be substantially changed.
"The waters stored in Lake Lanier are important to generate power, facilitate navigation and ensure the survival of ecologically sensitive resources downstream in Florida and Alabama," Florida attorneys argued in a brief to the high court. "But localities in Georgia seek to use those same waters for local water supply. Those divergent interests have spawned a cross-border water dispute that has produced 13 different decisions in six federal courts."
Florida's lawsuit argues that the Corps has no authority to increase the water flow to Atlanta, a view held by a federal judge in Florida who ruled against Georgia and the Corps in 2009. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, reversed the ruling, saying the Corps was within its purview to allocate water resources to the Atlanta area.
"The original authorizing legislation expressly contemplated a very substantial increase in the operation of the Buford Project to satisfy the water supply needs of the Atlanta area," the court wrote.
Thursday's Supreme Court conference will determine if there is sufficient interest among at least four justices to proceed with hearing the water case. Of the 10,000 or so cases presented to the court every year, less than 1 percent pass this stage.