In an effort to hold down rising power costs for hydroelectric customers in five US states, the Southeastern Federal Power Customers (SeFPC) has filed a federal lawsuit to regulate terms of water withdrawal from the Lake Lanier reservoir.

The reservoir has been increasingly used in the last 30 years as water supply for several Georgia cities that contracted with the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). However, the suit contends that the Corps is allowing water removal to continue, in greater amounts, even though all contracts expired more than seven years ago. That means less water for hydro power generation and higher electricity rates for consumers.

Buford dam at Lake Lanier is part of a system that generates power for more than four million retail electric customers in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina and Mississippi.

The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Washington, DC, asks for an injunction that bars the Corps from removing water without charging a fair amount to generate replacement electricity. It also asks that the Corps follow laws and regulations that limit its authority in withdrawing water — specifically, the Flood Control Act of 1944 and the Water Supply Act of 1958.

The suit maintains that US Congress authorised the construction of the Buford dam and reservoir project at Lake Lanier in 1946 to provide hydroelectric generation, flood control and downstream waterflow benefits. It did not authorise water supply as a project purpose, except as an incidental result of power generation. In the 1970s, according to the lawsuit, the Corps permitted small water removals from Lake Lanier under contracts with the City of Cumming and the City of Gainesville, Georgia. The removal of water has greatly increased over the years. Although by 1993, all contracts to remove water had expired, the Corps allowed withdrawals to continue without following the law or its own regulatory requirements.

The suit says with less water available for hydro power, the Southeastern Power Administration (SEPA) had to purchase replacement electricity that cost nine times as much to generate. Those increased costs have been passed on to the rural electric co-operatives and municipal utilities that buy power from SEPA.