Federal regulators say Gwinnett County is not authorized to take more water from Lake Lanier, even if Georgia approves a proposed withdrawal permit for the expanding metro Atlanta county.
The permit currently under review by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division would give Gwinnett 35 percent more water during the summer, when usage spikes from watering lawns and washing cars.
However, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates Buford Dam at the lake, says that the county has "no legal authority to take the water."
"In order to take water out of a federal reservoir, you need a water supply contract with the federal agency," said Pat Robbins, spokesman for the corps' Mobile District Office.
Georgia officials cite a contract they signed in January 2003 with the corps and federal hydropower customers that grants metro Atlanta enough water to keep up with growth for the next 10 to 20 years.
The agreement is being challenged by Alabama, Florida and environmental groups in federal court, and the corps said it cannot honor the contract until the lawsuit is resolved.
If the permit is approved, Gwinnett County would be the first local government to receive additional water from Lake Lanier since water talks between Georgia, Alabama and Florida ended in failure over a year ago. The three states have since resumed fighting in court over the Chattahoochee River, which feeds the lake.
Alabama and Florida contend that letting Atlanta take more water from Lanier would result in lower river levels downstream, harming water quality and potential business development. The states have been arguing over their shared waterways since the 1980s.
Gwinnett, which is expected to overtake DeKalb County as the state's second most populous county this year with nearly 700,000 residents, currently may take an average of 150 million gallons of water a day out of the lake. The new withdrawal limits would give the county more flexibility, allowing it to take an average of 203 million gallons a day in any given month as long as it averaged 150 million gallons a day over the course of the year.