That decision means an appeals court ruling favorable to metro Atlanta will stand. Authorities in Florida, Alabama and even southern Georgia complain that Atlanta takes too much water from Lake Lanier, a federal reservoir on the Chattahoochee River, leaving too little downstream for wildlife, industry and drinking water systems.
The Chattahoochee flows south from Atlanta, forming part of the border between Alabama and Georgia. It merges with the Flint River at the Florida state line and becomes the Apalachicola River, which cuts south across the Florida Panhandle and empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal called the Supreme Court’s decision a victory for his state.
“We can now move forward with this issue behind us, have the governors work together and come to a long-term agreement that will provide for the water needs of all three states,” Deal said in a written statement.
The governors of neighboring Alabama and Florida were not ready to concede. While the last ruling strengthened Atlanta’s hand, it did not by itself address all the issues in a long-running dispute that dates to 1990.
The dispute centers on how much water Atlanta can take from Lake Lanier. The city never contributed to the cost of building the dam, which was completed around 1960, because city officials did not believe water would be in short supply. Alabama and Florida officials have said Congress approved the dam so it could provide electricity, support navigation and control floods — but not supply drinking water.
Georgia officials maintain that Congress envisioned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would operate the dam so Atlanta could still get enough drinking water downstream from it. It currently supplies water to roughly 3 million people around Atlanta, more than half the metro area’s population.
The fight became a legal crisis for Atlanta in 2009 when U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that metro Atlanta had little right to the reservoir’s water. He signed an order that would have severely restricted the region’s withdrawals from the reservoir starting this summer to levels last seen in the 1970s _ when the city was a fraction of its current size _ unless the political leaders of Alabama, Florida and Georgia struck an agreement and got Congressional approval.
That decision spurred talks between the states but no deal.
Atlanta dodged its worst-case scenario last year when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the city and tossed aside the looming water cutoff. The appeals court ruled that Atlanta had a claim to water from the reservoir and it instructed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam, to reevaluate a request from Georgia seeking more water.