07.05.11Alan Harris

Unintended Water Consequences – Lake Sidney Lanier

Buford Dam at Lake Sydney LanierPhoto courtesy of Dale Wissman.
Buford Dam is much smaller than Hoover Dam, but the legal implications could be much larger.

Well, DAM!
Okay, I don’t care who you are, that’s funny…if you are a water geek! I had not planned for the second in the series of Unintended Water Consequences to be another dam and lake, but with the recent court ruling about water rights this one jumped to the front of the line.

Located in northeast Georgia, Buford Dam and Lake Sidney Lanier were built in the early 1950’s for the benefit of the public. In the words of the Army Corp of Engineers, “The Lake provides electric power, water, flood protection, and navigation while providing recreational opportunities to millions of users, as well as a sanctuary for fish, animal, and plant life.”

So, what’s the BIG DEAL?
It’s called the economics of water – drink vs. power vs. aquaculture rights.  Who/what deserves water more or deserves more water?

Florida wants enough water to flow from Lanier into the Apalachicola Bay to provide a healthy environment for federally protected fish and mussel species (really or just another point to hang their legal hat on), and to maintain its oyster harvest (the real/economic reason). Alabama wants enough water to maintain the operation of a nuclear power plant while Atlanta wants drinking water. What started out as a post WW II government idea became a bad taxpayer funded project that keeps sucking taxpayer resources with over 20 years of court cases between Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

So, what’s the PROBLEM?
Water flows into Lake Lanier from numerous creeks, streams and rivers forming the watershed for Lake Lanier.  The drainage area is approximately 1,040 square miles which is relatively small for 73 square miles of surface water at normal pool. (14:1 ratio) In extended times of low rainfall the needs/wants of the people downstream exceeds the water flowing into the lake.

So, what’s the LEGAL ISSUE?
While the legality of the water rights of Lake Lanier has been a court issue since 1990, it accelerated in 2007-2008 when the southeast experienced an extreme drought and water-poverty got angry at water-wealth, a phenomenon known as water-envy. In 2009 a judge set a doomsday clock ticking for Georgia, Alabama and Florida to arrive at a water-sharing agreement. If the states could not reach a settlement by July 2012 then metro Atlanta would only be allowed to withdraw the same amount of water it received in the mid-1970s when the population was less than 1/3 its current size.

In June 2011, The 11th Circuit panel ruled unanimously the Lake was built for the purpose of water supply for the metro Atlanta area. Before Buford Dam was built, the Chattahoochee River supplied almost all of Atlanta’s water. According to the court, the building of the dam posed a threat to the city if the corps intended to shut off water flow from the river for extended periods of time.

“Congress very clearly did not intend the dam to harm the city’s water supply,” the court said. The language of the Rivers and Harbors Act, which authorized the dam’s construction, “clearly indicates that water supply was an authorized purpose of the Buford Project.”

So, what’s NEXT?
The Court told the Army Corp to develop a plan to include supplying drinking water in 12 months. But more tax dollars will surely be spent.  While the 95 page ruling was unanimous from a 3 judge panel, Alabama is expected to appeal the ruling to the full 11th Circuit for all 10 judges (currently filled seats with 2 vacancies) to hear.

So, who CARES?
While this case has major implications for growth, development, energy, and economics in the tri-state area, the legal implications and precedent will impact other states with water issues.  Good water management practices at all levels is integral to help reduce water related stress and lawsuits.  Good water management begins with YOU.

…TO BE CONTINUED IN JULY 2012 and beyond

PS – An Imbedded Unintended Water Consequence
The State of Georgia, who has the most to lose if the ruling goes against them, actually kicked off the Lake Lanier project by funding the completion of the initial planning and design phases of the project including the powerhouse design and initial start of construction. Can you say Irony?

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Alan Harris

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Alan Harris

Alan Harris is a water management pioneer. With roots in landscape architecture, Alan has worked with irrigation throughout his career experimenting with hydrozones and a variety of high efficiency irrigation systems. Now, over thirty years in the landscape industry, Alan continues to stay apprised of the latest technology even in a sales leadership capacity as our National Sales Operations Support Manager and Regional Sales Leader for our landscape maintenance division.


  1. Thursday, 8:22 Susana Murray, LCAM

    We also have our share of issues up here in NE Florida with The St. John’s River Water Management authority , which I believe covers more than 16 counties. I used to live in Atlanta and know about Lake Lanier and the tri-state “water wars.” Let’s see what happens next.

    For those not familiar with NE Florida here is a quote from their website

    “The St. Johns River Water Management District covers 18 counties in northeast and east-central Florida and is one of five water management districts dedicated to the preservation and management of Florida’s precious water resources. It was created by the Florida Legislature through passage of the Water Resources Act of 1972.

    The St. Johns River Water Management District is responsible for managing the ground and surface water supplies of the region. Duties of the District include permit issuance, land acquisition, water quality and quantity research, ground and surface water mapping and outreach and public education.”

  2. Thursday, 8:30 Alan Harris

    @ Susana – thanks for the info – lots of good information can be found @ I look forward to writing about NE Florida soon.

  3. Friday, 3:49 Wendy Murray, FEMV, CMCA, LCAM

    Alan, thanks for sharing. The Biscayne Aquifer is often the topic of discussion here in south Florida. In our area, more than 70% of treated water goes for irrigation. We have seen HOAs and Condos going to more environmentally sound practices regarding irrigation, such as reclaimed water irrigation, transpiration systems that operate according to the National Weather Service reports and those that have soil sensors and rain gauges. Being a good steward of water usage benefits all of us and I encourage community associations to discuss options with their irrigation or landscaping vendors.

  4. Friday, 5:48 Alan Harris

    @Wendy – FL is way ahead of most of the SE US in regards to water reclamation and Smart Irrigation Controllers. I am working on an article about the water woes of West Palm Beach area and the consumer’s opinions. I will post a link on CAI when it is published.

  5. Friday, 6:38 Susana Murray, LCAM

    Alan, talking about West Palm Beach county, down there all residential, commercial, and even churches are under once-per-week watering restriction due to the drought.

  6. Friday, 1:24 Alan Harris

    @Susana – thankfully the West Palm Beach area is getting more heavy showers today, but with the changing weather patterns watering restrictions of some sort will likely be in place for some time to come.

  7. Monday, 6:31 Alan Harris

    Well that didn’t take long! As anticipated Alabama and Florida appeal ruling in water feud with GA

  8. [...] Politics – sometimes as in the case of Atlanta it is not so much about the amount of rainfall in an area, but how the water is stored and [...]

  9. Friday, 1:20 Alan Harris

    @Susana After months of drought in West Palm Beach the pendulum swung the other way and the fall was incredibly wet. I was a little north in Orlando for a wedding when they set a new 1 day record for rain in October. Interestingly I wrote this post about the attitudes of the drought and water restrictions back in July. While the drought appears to be broken for the time being the attitudes in the post are universal.

  10. [...] Ingenuity developed a “better” rainwater storage and distribution system in the form of dams and municipal water lines. As a result we lost the simple art of rainwater collection, but this old [...]

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