Court Lets Atlanta Water Dispute Flow Into Mediation

By Robyn Hagan Cain on November 21, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Atlanta, the city best known for its "Real Housewives" cast and streets with peachy names, could soon have a new claim to fame as the city with the most legal battles involving water rights.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court refused to hear the tri-state battle between Florida, Alabama, and Georgia over Atlanta's dependence on Lake Lanier as its primary water source.

This week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Atlanta in a separate aquatic dispute over the southern mega-city's water contract with its neighbor, Sandy Springs.

In 1995, a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit filed against the City of Atlanta resulted in two consent decrees requiring Atlanta to clean up its sewer system. Atlanta had pledged its water service revenue as part of the collateral for bonds that were issued to finance its compliance with the sewer system consent decrees.

Atlanta persuaded the same district court that had issued the sewer system consent decrees to enjoin state law proceedings related to its water works, and to take over supervision of those proceedings. The question is whether the district court had jurisdiction to do that.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that the district court overstepped its authority, leading to a conflict with the Georgia Service Delivery Act (GSDA).

The GSDA provides that when new municipalities are incorporated, each county and affected municipality shall review, and revise if necessary, the approved service delivery agreement. When Sandy Springs incorporated in 2005, it tried to revise a water agreement with Atlanta to reduce a 21 percent surcharge.

Negotiations to adopt the new service delivery agreement stalled in October 2009, and Fulton County, which was also affected by the agreement, followed the dispute resolution procedure prescribed by the Act: It filed a petition in Fulton County Superior Court.

Atlanta objected, and the district court enjoined Sandy Springs and Fulton County from pursuing mediation in state court. District Judge Thomas Thrash, who oversees the consent decree, brought the two governments in as parties in the Clean Water Act case.

The Eleventh Circuit vacated the injunction this week, opening the door for Sandy Springs and Fulton County to mediate the dispute with Atlanta, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. The decision is expected to give Sandy Springs more power in the negotiation process.

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