Actions in two courtrooms soon could determine metro Atlanta's ability to control its future water supply as well as its hold over the water it already has.
The outcome is as uncertain as it is important.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide this fall whether to take a petition filed by Georgia, which could validate an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assuring this region's access to water for 20 years.
In a separate case, U.S. District Court Judge Paul A. Magnuson in Florida wants by early next year to hear arguments over whether metro Atlanta has the right to use Lake Lanier, which sits on the Chattahoochee River, as its primary water supply. The right has been assumed over the years: More than 3 million people get their drinking water from the federal reservoir or the Chattahoochee just below it.
But its legal basis is contested by Alabama and Florida.
Attorneys for all three states say they can't predict the outcome, nor can they say exactly what defeat could mean to this region. Certainly, additional reservoirs are already coming. Aggressive water conservation may also be required, even after the current drought ends.
Alabama, for one, is taking a hold-no-prisoners stance.
"At bottom, federal law governs the operation at Lake Lanier, and as much as the Atlanta area views it as its private drinking water reservoir, that is not what federal law says it was built to do," said Matt Lembke, a Birmingham attorney for the state of Alabama. "If Georgia had spent the money to build the reservoir it would belong to Georgia, but it was the federal taxpayers who built that reservoir."
He says metro Atlanta would still be able to draw water from the lake and the river below it when there's enough, but drinking water would no longer dictate lake operations. That could make a drought like the one Atlanta's experiencing a disaster.
Lembke also criticized the region for its "total failure of planning" that led to its dependence on Lanier. Metro Atlanta's water plan counts on the region taking far more water out of the lake. There's no plan "B."
In the meantime, Georgia and metro Atlanta governments spent more than $7 million in legal fees from 1998 to 2007, and the bills are mounting.
Question of ownership
After 18 years of flanking maneuvers, the central question should finally be answered next year in the Florida court: Whose water is it anyway?
Alabama and Florida have contested metro Atlanta's right to additional drinking water from Lanier since 1990, when the first of many lawsuits was filed. They say Congress didn't authorize the reservoir to serve as metro Atlanta's water supply when it approved Buford Dam in the 1940s. It was built in the 1950s, forming Lanier. They argue its purposes were to control floods, float barges downstream and generate hydropower.
Georgia disagrees and has compiled federal documents to prove lawmakers intended one of the lake's purposes to be water supply for the city.
Former Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield fought hard to make sure Lanier was built upstream of the city's taps, said R. Todd Silliman, an attorney for Georgia.