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State suing Corps over Lanier water releases

ATLANTA - Georgia is going to court to block the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from releasing what state officials consider too much water from Lake Lanier given the current drought, Gov. Sonny Perdue announced Wednesday.

Perdue acted five days after issuing an ultimatum to the agency that manages Lanier and other federal reservoirs in Georgia to keep more water above Buford Dam or face a lawsuit.

Corps officials responded at the close of business on Wednesday - the governor's deadline - by refusing his request.

"The Corps' nonsensical action to further release vital water from Georgia's already depleted federal reservoirs must not stand," Perdue said in a prepared statement. "There is simply no scientific justification to operate these reservoirs in this manner during a historic drought like the one we are experiencing."

The Corps has been managing Lanier and the other reservoirs under its jurisdiction in accordance with the federal Endangered Species Act, which requires a certain flow of water downstream into Florida to protect species of sturgeon and mussels.

"We are not unilaterally opposed to changing the flows," said Maj. Daren Payne, deputy commander of the Corps' Mobile office. "But we'd be in violation of the law if we did."

But on Wednesday afternoon, with the governor in Asia on an economic development trip, two other top state leaders lashed out at the Corps during the hours leading up to the deadline Perdue had set.

"We're not going to sit idly by and let the Corps ... drain our lakes," Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle told reporters during a news conference at the Capitol. "(Water) consumption for humans is far more important than fish downstream."

Shortly before Cagle spoke, Carol Couch, director of the state Environmental Protection Division, described the scenario metro Atlanta faces - due in part to the Corps' releases - in stark terms.

Barring enough rainfall to affect water levels, she said Lake Lanier - the region's chief water supply - will be effectively out of storage capacity in 81 days.

After that, Couch said, water systems will be forced to install costly pumps to remove water from below their intakes.

Shrinking supplies also could prompt another round of state-imposed water-use restrictions as early as next week, she said.

The EPD banned most outdoor water use late last month across the northern third of the state.

Eventually, local governments may have to set priorities among water users, giving preference to those essential to public health and safety, including hospitals, nursing homes and fire departments, Couch said.

"This is a potential disaster in the making, comparable to what might be needed in the aftermath of a hurricane," she said.

Both Couch and Cagle stressed the need for Georgians to do what they can to conserve water in their homes.

But they said conservation alone won't be enough.

"We can manage what falls from the sky better," Cagle said. "(But) we can't conserve our way out of this problem as long as the Corps is wasting water."

During the days leading up to Perdue's announcement, Couch said she urged Corps officials to ask the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for permission to reduce the flow of water from Georgia's reservoirs as an emergency measure.

Georgia's congressional delegation took a similar approach on Tuesday, introducing a bill that would suspend the Endangered Species Act during severe droughts.

Perdue said the state will seek a preliminary injunction this week seeking an immediate reduction of the water leaving Georgia's reservoirs to flow downstream.

"Litigation is never how I choose to deal with issues, but the Corps has left us no choice," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.