Seminole State Park _ Water

The beginning of the Apalachicola River is at Lake Seminole, in southwest Georgia (shown). Water flows southward. Some ends up in Apalachicola Bay in Northwest Florida, but a reduction in that flow has resulted in a “water war” that Florida is fighting with Georgia. / Photo courtesy of Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources

The U.S. Supreme Court, on Jan. 8, agreed to a full hearing of the “water war” lawsuit Florida v. Georgia.

In the lawsuit over water rights, Florida contends that Georgia should reduce its water consumption and allow more water to flow into Apalachicola Bay, in the Florida Panhandle. Georgia argues that it needs the water to supply greater Atlanta, in the north-central part of the state; as well as farmers in southeast Georgia.


Florida says in the suit that the Sunshine State’s ecology and economy — especially in and around Apalachicola Bay, long known, until recent years, for its thriving oyster industry — have suffered, and will continue to suffer, serious harm due to its northern neighbor’s increasing consumption of water and the resulting reduced flow into Florida.

Apalachicola Bay, in Northwest Florida, is crucial to the local economy. / Courtesy of the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce

In the suit, Florida is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to force an “equitable apportionment of the waters of the (Apalachicola) Basin,” Special Master Ralph Lancaster wrote in his 2017 report to the Supreme Court.

Much at stake

This is a high-stakes fight for both states. The focus of the lawsuit is the Peach State’s use of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, parts of which lie in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. That basin feeds into the Apalachicola River that runs through Florida’s Panhandle and then into Apalachicola Bay in Franklin County.

In his report, Lancaster summed up the stakes: “Both States warn of dire consequences … Florida of an ecological and economic disaster in the Apalachicola Region; Georgia of a crippled city (Atlanta) and arid farmland in Georgia.”

Point/counterpoint on water rights

Florida has asked for more “streamflow” from the Apalachicola River in order “to sustain the riverine and estuarine ecosystems in the River and the Bay (collectively, the ‘Apalachicola Region’) as well as the livelihood of those, like the oystermen of the Bay, who make their living from these ecosystems,” wrote Lancaster, a private attorney, in his report.

Oysters, a mainstay of the Apalachicola area’s economy, thrive in a low-salinity environment. But the reduced water flow from the Apalachicola River into Apalachicola Bay has increased the salinity level of the water. That has adversely affected the number of oysters harvested — in part because oyster predators, such as stone crabs, prefer the higher salt content.

Georgia has countered that it needs to be allowed “to consume sufficient water from the (Apalachicola) Basin to meet the municipal and industrial water demands of … Atlanta … and the agricultural demands of farmers in southeastern Georgia.”

Georgia: Florida’s problems “self-inflicted”

In the lawsuit, the special master noted, Georgia argues that “Florida’s asserted harms are imaginary, self-inflicted, or inflicted by the operations of the United States Army Corps of Engineers.” (The Corps is not a party in this lawsuit.)

The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case will allow Florida to contest — again — the special master’s report, which recommends that the justices rule in Georgia’s favor.

During the hour-long Jan. 8 hearing, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed — at least to some extent — to side with Florida. She asked Georgia’s attorney, Craig Primis, “Can we agree that a cap (on Georgia’s water consumption) at the very least would prevent … the situation in Florida from getting worse? That is, that if we do nothing, then the situation in Florida can get worse, even worse than it is now,” according to the transcript.

Primis, however, disagreed.

No date has been set for the justices to hear the case.

For the entire transcript of the hearing, visit https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2017/142,%20orig_qol1.pdf.