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States v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 29, 2018

STATE OF ALABAMA, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS, et al., Defendants, THE STATE OF GEORGIA, ATLANTA REGIONAL COMMISSION, et al., Defendant-Intervenors.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOHN D. BATES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Alabama filed this lawsuit to set aside a decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the “Corps”) to grant Georgia's request for additional water supply from a federal reservoir, Lake Lanier, which is located within the Northern District of Georgia. Georgia and a group of Georgia Water Supply Providers have moved to transfer the case to the Northern District of Georgia, or alternatively to the Southern District of Alabama.

         A decision in this case will most directly impact nearly four million Georgians who depend on Lake Lanier for their water supply. More broadly, it will affect people, economies, recreation, and navigation throughout the entire Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Basin (the “ACF Basin”), a network of waterways in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, all hundreds of miles from this district. No. direct real-world effects will be felt by anyone within this district. The challenged decision was made by Corps personnel located within the Eleventh Circuit, either in Atlanta in the Northern District of Georgia or in Mobile in the Southern District of Alabama. Moreover, the decision was made pursuant to a 2011 decision from the Eleventh Circuit in litigation involving these same parties, in which the court opined on the scope of the Corps' authority to grant Georgia's water supply request, and remanded the case to the Corps to make the very decision that is now being challenged. Yet Alabama chose to file this lawsuit hundreds of miles from home, purportedly because it involves an issue of national concern that necessitates a “neutral” forum. But Alabama's choice also appears motivated by its desire to leverage an earlier D.C. Circuit decision, which was subsequently interpreted by the Eleventh Circuit when it remanded the case to the Corps. In these circumstances, Alabama's choice of forum is entitled to little deference, and the relevant private-and public-interest factors strongly weigh in favor of transferring this case to the Northern District of Georgia. Hence, the Court will grant the transfer motions.

         BACKGROUND

         I. The ACF Basin

         The ACF Basin covers more than 19, 500 square miles in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Approximately 75% of the land area and 90% of the population of the ACF Basin are located within Georgia. The Chattahoochee River flows from the mountains of North Georgia across the state, runs along the Georgia-Alabama border, and then joins the Flint River at the Florida-Georgia border to form the Apalachicola River. Those three rivers, their tributaries, and the associated drainage area form the ACF Basin.

         The Corps operates five federal dams within the ACF Basin. The largest is the Buford Dam, which forms Lake Lanier, a reservoir located about fifty miles north of Atlanta. Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River below it are the primary water supply sources for metropolitan Atlanta. South of Lake Lanier are three dams located along the Georgia-Alabama border: West Point Dam, Walter F. George Lock and Dam, and George Andrews Lock and Dam. The southernmost dam in the ACF Basin is Jim Woodruff Lock and Dam, which forms Lake Seminole at the Georgia-Florida border. The Corps is charged with managing water storage at these reservoirs. It does so by developing water control plans and manuals, which explain how the Corps will operate its reservoirs to fulfill federal objectives while balancing competing interests.

         II. History of the ACF Basin Litigation

         In its brief, Georgia aptly described the history of this litigation as “labyrinthine.” Georgia's Mot. to Transfer [ECF No. 25-1] at 7. This lawsuit is the latest in a long series of challenges to the Corps' management of the reservoirs within the ACF Basin. All prior cases have either originated in or been transferred to courts within the Eleventh Circuit, and the instant case emanates from a 2011 decision by the Eleventh Circuit.

         A. Alabama v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (N.D. Ala. 1:90-cv-1331)

         In 1989, the Corps issued a draft report that proposed to reallocate storage in Lake Lanier to accommodate water supply needs in metropolitan Atlanta. See In re MDL-1824 Tri-State Water Rights Litig., 644 F.3d 1160, 1173 (11th Cir. 2011). Alabama filed suit in the Northern District of Alabama to challenge that proposal. Shortly thereafter, the case was stayed to allow the parties to engage in settlement negotiations. Id. at 1174. The negotiations led to an interstate compact (the “ACF Compact”) between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, which was ratified by Congress in 1997. Id. The ACF Compact established a structure for making decisions and resolving disputes, but it did not specify how the waters of the ACF Basin would be shared. The ACF Compact expired in 2003 when the parties “failed to agree on a water allocation formula.” Id. at 1175.

         B. SeFPC v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (D.D.C. 1:00-cv-2975)

         Meanwhile, an industry group that represents hydropower purchasers in the ACF Basin- the Southeastern Federal Power Customers, Inc. (“SeFPC”)-filed an APA lawsuit in this district alleging that the Corps “had wrongfully diverted water from hydropower generation to water supply, thereby causing SeFPC's members to pay unfairly high rates for their power.” Id. The case was referred to mediation, and Georgia and the Georgia Water Supply Providers intervened. In January 2003, SeFPC, the Corps, Georgia, and the Georgia Water Supply Providers reached a settlement, under which 22% of Lake Lanier's storage was allocated to local consumption uses; Alabama and Florida then intervened to contest the settlement. Id. The D.C. Circuit invalidated the settlement agreement, concluding that the Corps had exceeded its authority under the Water Supply Act of 1958 (“WSA”) because the 22% reallocation was a “major operational change” that required congressional approval. See Se. Fed. Power Customers, Inc. v. Geren, 514 F.3d 1316, 1324-25 (D.C. Cir. 2008). After the D.C. Circuit remanded the case, it was transferred to the multi-district litigation (“MDL”) proceeding that was by then pending in the Middle District of Florida. See Tri-State Water Rights Litig., 644 F.3d at 1176.

         C. Georgia v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (N.D.Ga. 2:01-cv-26)

         Shortly after the SeFPC case was filed, Georgia requested that the Corps allocate water from Lake Lanier to meet the needs of metropolitan Atlanta through 2030. The Corps did not respond to Georgia's request, and Georgia filed suit in the Northern District of Georgia. See Id. After the Corps rejected Georgia's request, Alabama intervened and moved to transfer the case to the Northern District of Alabama-where its own suit against the Corps was pending-or to have it abated. The court held that the case would be abated pending resolution of the case in the Northern District of Alabama. Georgia v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng'rs, 223 F.R.D. 691, 699 (N.D.Ga. 2004).

         D. The Tri-State Water Rights MDL

         After Florida entered the fray by filing a suit against the Corps in 2006, the Georgia Water Supply Providers filed a motion with the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (the “MDL Panel”) seeking to consolidate these cases into a single proceeding. See In re Tri-State Water Rights Litig., 481 F.Supp.2d 1351, 1352 (J.P.M.L. 2007). The MDL Panel granted the motion, finding that “the core disputes in this litigation primarily affect parties and interests located within the Eleventh Circuit.” Id. at 1353. The cases were centralized in the Middle District of Florida.

         E. The Eleventh Circuit's Decision

         The formation of the MDL led to a landmark Eleventh Circuit decision concerning water rights in the ACF Basin. In 2011, the Eleventh Circuit held that the Corps had erred in rejecting Georgia's request on the grounds that water supply was not among the congressionally authorized uses of Lake Lanier. See Tri-State Water Rights Litig., 644 F.3d at 1192. The Eleventh Circuit held that the Corps' authority under the original authorizing statute was supplemented by the WSA, and that a combination of these and other authorities might enable the Corps to grant Georgia's request. Id. at 1192-97. The Eleventh Circuit remanded the case with detailed instructions for the Corps to reconsider Georgia's request. The Eleventh Circuit ordered the Corps to complete its analysis and release its conclusions within one year, and the court maintained jurisdiction to monitor compliance. Id. at 1200-1205.

         In reaching this decision, the Eleventh Circuit considered the D.C. Circuit's earlier decision in SeFPC. The Eleventh Circuit rejected Alabama's arguments that the SeFPC decision precluded a finding by the Corps that it had authority to grant Georgia's water supply request. Id. at 1179, 1201-05. The Eleventh Circuit determined that the D.C. Circuit's decision did not have preclusive effect because, among other reasons, the question of what constitutes the appropriate measure of “operational change was not actually litigated” in SeFPC. Id. at 1203. Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit instructed the Corps that it was not “bound by collateral estoppel . . . and should make its decisions on remand based on its own reasoned analysis.” Id. at 1205.

         III. The Adoption of the ACF Manual

         Thereafter, the Corps proceeded to review Georgia's water supply request pursuant to the Eleventh Circuit's remand instructions. In June 2012, the Corps concluded that it was legally authorized to grant Georgia's water supply request. In doing so, the Corps concluded that the standard adopted by the D.C. Circuit in SeFPC was not the correct measure for determining its authority under the WSA.[1] Having concluded that it was authorized to grant Georgia's request, the Corps proceeded with an environmental impact study relating to the request. On March 30, 2017, the ...


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