By Bill Rankin for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A panel of judges on Wednesday appeared disinclined to let stand a ruling in the tri-state water dispute that, should it come to pass, could have catastrophic consequences for the metro region.

The judges for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals indicated they wanted to send the case back and order the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Buford Dam, to make a final determination of how much water from Lake Lanier can be used to meet metro Atlanta’s needs.

At issue is a July 2009 ruling from Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson, who found it was illegal for the corps to draw water from Lake Lanier to meet the needs of 3 million metro residents. Magnuson set a July 2012 deadline for Georgia, Alabama and Florida to work out a resolution. Otherwise, the judge said, metro Atlanta would only be allowed to take the same amount of water it received in the mid-1970s, when the population was a fraction of its current size.

But Judge Stanley Marcus of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday said he believed that the imposition of such a deadline constitutes an injunction. If that were the case, Magnuson should have weighed the potential harms and equities of such a result, Marcus said.

He then looked up to Parker Thompson, who was arguing the case on behalf of Florida, and asked, “You would have no problem with us vacating that?”

Parker, after looking back to lawyers from Alabama, then told Marcus he would not oppose it.

The two other judges on the panel, R. Lanier Anderson III of Macon and visiting Judge Richard Mills of Springfield, Ill., also seemed ready to send the case back to the corps. Both Mills and Marcus pressed Michael Gray, a lawyer representing the corps, to give the court an idea of how long it will take the corps to issue a final decision.

Gray estimated it would take 24 to 30 months.

Marcus, who chaired the panel, did not indicate when the 11th Circuit will issue its ruling.