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Glee continues over courts water ruling
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You might have heard it last week - the collective sigh of relief and high-five slapping, as word quickly spread that Georgia had won a decisive victory in its long-standing battle over water withdrawal from Lake Lanier.

"I'm extremely pleased," said Kelly Randall, Gainesville's public utilities director. "I think the ruling goes beyond what I had hoped. I think it's great the court ... said (water supply) was an original purpose."

The 11-year legal battle between Georgia and neighbors Alabama and Florida hit a major milestone June 28, as the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed a July 2009 decision that would have severely hamstrung Hall County, and much of metro Atlanta, from withdrawing water from the lake.

The decision states that Congress always intended for the lake to be used as a source of drinking water for the Atlanta area and that previous decisions, including the 2009 ruling, were based on "a clear error of law."

Also, as part of its ruling, a three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reconsider giving Georgia permanent access to the lake's water.

"This court document is 95 pages ... and we have to go through it page-by-page and really analyze what (the court) is telling us to do," corps spokeswoman Lisa Coghlan said June 29.

"We ... will obviously comply with its requirements," she added.

One thing is for certain: The ruling stops the corps' long-awaited water control manual and Environmental Impact Statement for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which includes Lake Lanier, in their tracks.

"We're going to have to readjust to the court's ruling," Coghlan said.

The court gave the corps one year to tweak the manual, which had been set for release in August and based on compliance with the July 2009 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson.

The ruling also gives area leaders pause on plans for a water treatment plant at the Cedar Creek Reservoir off Cedar Creek Road in East Hall.

"I feel confident that the construction phase ... will be put off," Randall said. "It had been scheduled to begin late this fall, but with the availability of water from Lake Lanier, there's no reason to move forward with it sooner rather than later.

"It will be one way for us to enable us to forestall future rate increases to the benefit of our community. We figured we needed to have that plant online as soon after July of 2012 as we could."

Kit Dunlap, president of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said she was "very encouraged ... that the (Circuit Court) judges made that ruling unanimously."

"I feel like the right decision has been made," she added. "Now, we'll have to see what happens with the corps."

Dunlap said she believes, however, that Gainesville and Hall County shouldn't completely let down their guard.

"We still need to address the future of water," she said. "We still need to keep negotiating and talking to (the other states)."

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said June 29, the decision leaves the state in a better position, but a negotiated resolution is still needed.

Alabama and Florida, which have long said that metro Atlanta uses too much water, harming residents and wildlife downstream, are mulling their next steps.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has said he would appeal to the full Court of Appeals and Florida Gov. Rick Scott's legal team was still reviewing the decision.

After applauding the 11th Circuit's decision, Clyde Morris, attorney for the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association, on June 29 further explained the appellate options of Alabama and Florida.

"A party has the right to request that the full court rehear the case, but by rule that is granted only in two types of cases - to secure or maintain uniformity of the court's decisions or if the proceeding involves a question of exceptional importance," Morris said.

"I would not want to speculate as to whether the 11th Circuit would grant (a) rehearing in this case," he said.

Ultimately, Morris added, the case could wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I would hope Florida and Alabama will be more willing to seek an amicable resolution in light of the 11th Circuit's exceptionally thorough, well-reasoned and well-written opinion," he said.

In addition to agreeing with Georgia on the authorized purposes of Lake Lanier, the 11th Circuit held that Alabama and Florida's attacks on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' current operations were improper and should be dismissed, according to a statement released last week by McKenna Long & Aldridge, which has represented Georgia in the legal battle.

"This is one of the more important water cases in the United States," said attorney Todd Silliman.

"It concerns the primary source of water supply to more than three million people, and also affects the availability of water for recreation, hydropower, fish and wildlife, and other needs."

Attorney Bruce Brown said, "Georgia has persisted that Lake Lanier was always intended for water supply, and unlike other states, we followed the appropriate procedures to raise that issue with the (corps) ... and then with the courts."

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