By Bill Rankin and Chris Joyner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The state of Georgia has its chance Wednesday to ask a federal appeals court in Atlanta to overturn a crushing ruling that said the metro area cannot rely on Lake Lanier to meet most of its water needs.

On the eve of the next big step in the state’s decades-long legal battle over water with Alabama and Florida, the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper handed out awards to promote its own argument, that water conservation will be more effective in solving Georgia’s needs than the reservoirs being promoted by Gov. Nathan Deal.

The group honored several metro Atlanta governments for their conservation efforts, such as protecting water sources and replacing less-efficient toilets.

Deal, in addition to pushing reservoirs as an answer to the state’s water needs, is also pursuing a political resolution to the water war Georgia has fought with Alabama and Florida. For now, Deal said, the state is focused primarily on reaching a water-sharing agreement with Alabama and, if successful, then turning to Florida.

Pursuing an agreement became necessary following a July 2009 order from Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson, who found it was illegal for the Army Corps of Engineers to draw water from Lake Lanier to meet the needs of 3 million metro residents. Magnuson set a July 2012 deadline, giving the three states time to work out a resolution. Otherwise, the judge said, metro Atlanta can only take the same amount of water it received in the mid-1970s, when the population was a fraction of its current size.

While they seek agreement, all three states and other parties will argue their cases Wednesday before a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Unless we find some relief from Judge Magnuson’s ruling, it’s going to be a very sad state of affairs,” said Michael Paris, president of the Council for Quality Growth, a nonprofit trade association of businesses and developers.

Former U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman will argue on behalf of Georgia, as well as the city of Atlanta and Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties.

Alabama and Florida will also present arguments, as will Gwinnett County, the Corps of Engineers and the Southeastern Federal Power Customers, a nonprofit organization of rural electric cooperatives and municipal electric systems.

Sally Bethea, the executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, made her own case Tuesday.

“We don’t think we can or should afford these very expensive reservoirs,” she said during a news conference for presentation of its awards. “We’re hoping to convince them there is another way.”

In a new report, Bethea’s group claims the metro area could save more than 164 million gallons per day by 2035 by fixing leaky pipes, replacing outdated toilets, mandating high-efficiency clothes washers and dishwashers, and implementing “aggressive” increases in water rates, especially for businesses.

“In three years we could find close to 50 million gallons per day through a toilet replacement program,” Bethea said.

The group estimates such a swap program in the metro area would cost about $190 million in taxpayer money. But Bethea said that is a lot less than $350 million to $650 million for a new reservoir and delivered much quicker.

Pat Stevens, chief of environmental planning for the Atlanta Regional Commission and manager of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, applauded the goals of the report. But she said conservation alone will not replace the need for new reservoirs.

“We need to manage our water wisely, but you cannot have public water supply in North Georgia without new reservoirs,” she said. “We are going to have to build reservoirs to accommodate future growth.”

The Riverkeeper awards went to the city of Atlanta and Cobb, DeKalb and Douglas counties for efforts ranging from protecting local water sources to toilet-replacement programs.