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Appeals Court Won't Rehear Water Ruling

Staff Photo: John Bohn Water levels are low at Lake Lanier over the Labor Day weekend. This is a view from Mary Alice Park Road in Cumming on Saturday. 

Staff Photo: John Bohn Water levels are low at Lake Lanier over the Labor Day weekend. This is a view from Mary Alice Park Road in Cumming on Saturday. 

ATLANTA -- A federal appeals court will not reconsider a ruling that gave metro Atlanta the right to tap a reservoir that provides water to roughly 3 million people, meaning Alabama and Florida must now decide whether to take their legal challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta rejected a request Friday from Georgia's neighbors who had asked the full court to reconsider a ruling from a three-judge panel that handed metro Atlanta a major victory in a feud over water rights. Lawyers were first notified Monday of the decision by the full appeals court.

"We're very pleased by the ruling and feel the court made the court made the correct decision," said R. Todd Silliman, an attorney who represents Georgia.

Alabama attorney Matthew Lembke said he had not been formally notified of the ruling and declined to comment. An attorney for Florida did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

The long-running legal feud over water hit a crescendo in 2009 when U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson decided that metro Atlanta had little legal authority to draw water from Lake Lanier, which is formed by a dam on the Chattahoochee River. His set a July 2012 deadline for the political leaders of Georgia, Alabama and Florida to reach a deal resolving their dispute over water rights in the Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola rivers.

If they failed, Magnuson said he would restrict water withdrawals from Lake Lanier to levels last seen in the 1970s, when metro Atlanta was a fraction of its current size.

But this summer's ruling from the three-judge appeals panel significantly strengthened Georgia's hand at the bargaining table. It tossed aside Magnuson's deadline, saying that Congress always intended that water supply was a permissible use of Lake Lanier. The judges gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam, one year to re-evaluate a request from Georgia seeking access to more water.

While the ruling instructed the Corps that water supply is a permissible use of the dam, Army officials must still weigh the needs of downstream users and wildlife when making their decision.