County cheers water ruling

Lake Lanier Islands Resort is shown from above in this photograph provided by Gwinnett County.

Lake Lanier Islands Resort is shown from above in this photograph provided by Gwinnett County.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Gwinnett leaders and locals are raising their glasses to cheer an appellate decision that ensures the county's drinking water supply.

"It's a great ruling," Buford resident Jackie Joseph said of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision Tuesday that stopped a 2012 deadline that could have cut off water to 3 million people in metro Atlanta if officials did not reach a compromise in the water wars that have plagued Georgia, Alabama and Florida for two decades.

While the ruling does not end the litigation and could be appealed, it gives Georgia a better place at the negotiations, and for Gwinnett it justifies all the extra money and work that went into returning treated wastewater to the lake.

Joseph, who lives along the lake's shore, said she could never understand why Judge Paul Magnuson ruled in 2009 that since drinking water was not a stated purpose for the lake in its congressional authorization more than 50 years ago that millions of metro Atlantans would go thirsty.

The three-judge panel at the Court of Appeals agreed, pointing out that the formation of the lake by building Buford Dam was affecting the drinking water supply of the Chattahoochee River.

In the appeal, lawyers for Gwinnett County argued that the county had specific authorization for withdrawals, and the court agreed on one of three arguments.

If the decision stands, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must factor in drinking water in its decisions on how much water to release from the dam each day. Only then will the question on how much water supply will be available for Atlanta to grow.

But officials are still celebrating, since they know at least those who live in the area now are assured a drop to drink.

"One thing we know is we are all a whole lot better off than we had been. That's for sure," Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said. "It's just good to be talking about it ... not looking at the clock ticking."

For Georgia's third largest county, leaders were also excited that the panel "strongly suggested" that the Corps factor in water returned to the lake in its allocations.

That gives Gwinnett a boost, since officials spent $72 million on a pipeline to return to Lanier treated wastewater -- which also cost millions to be treated to a higher standard.

On an average day, the county draws around 75 million gallons from the lake for drinking water and returns about 30 million gallons in treated wastewater.

"This is good news for Gwinnett County and supports the investment we made in returning water to Lake Lanier," Nash said.

Chamber of Commerce officials also lauded the court victory, since the previous ruling had an impact on the ability to entice businesses to move to the area.

"We are grateful to Gov. (Nathan) Deal and all the leaders who made this important victory possible for the state and our local community," said the Gwinnett Chamber's Jann Moore. "As Gwinnett looks ahead to implement a solid plan for growth and stability, a viable water supply and long term plan for sustainability will be important to its success."

Joseph, who battled the county as president of the Lake Lanier Association to ensure the quality of the water returned to the lake, said she knows the court war will continue to wage.

But it may help in the group's fight to raise the full level of the lake a few feet to secure some more storage.

Next up, she expects, is recreation, a big topic for anyone with a home along the shoreline.

"We'll just have to see what tomorrow will bring," she said.