Florida has gotten another chance to win its “water war” with Georgia. The U.S. Supreme Court said on March 20 that it would allow more legal briefs to be filed in the case. The decision will allow Florida to contest — once again — a special master’s report that recommended the justices rule in Georgia’s favor.
In the lawsuit over water rights — State of Florida vs. State of Georgia — Florida contends that Georgia should reduce its water consumption and allow more water to flow into Apalachicola Bay, in the 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.
Expensive water war
So far, since filing the lawsuit in 2013, Florida has spent $98 million fighting Georgia.
In the water war lawsuit, Florida claims that the state’s ecology and economy — especially in and around Apalachicola Bay — 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. Florida is asking the Supreme Court to force an “equitable apportionment of the waters of the (Apalachicola) Basin,” Special Master Ralph Lancaster wrote.
SCOTUS follows special master’s recommendation
At the end of the 137-page report is the Supreme Court’s ruling (excerpted here): “we (the justices) conclude that Florida has not proven by clear and convincing evidence that a decree imposing a cap on Georgia’s consumptive water use would result in additional streamflow in Florida at a time that would provide a material benefit to Florida. Accordingly, we ADOPT the Special Master’s recommendation and DENY Florida’s request for relief.”
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.
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, adversely affecting the number of oysters harvested — in part because oyster predators, such as stone crabs, prefer the higher salt content.
Georgia countered that it needs to be allowed “to consume sufficient water from the Basin to meet the municipal and industrial water demands of … Atlanta … and the agricultural demands of farmers in southeastern Georgia.”
In the lawsuit, the special master noted, Georgia argued that “Florida’s asserted harms are imaginary, self-inflicted, or inflicted by the operations of the United States Army Corps of Engineers.”
Corps not a party to water war suit
The Army Corps of Engineers was not named in the lawsuit that Florida filed. Lancaster seemed to criticize the state for that omission: “the Report recommends that the (Supreme) Court deny Florida’s request for relief because the Corps is not a party to this original jurisdiction proceeding … (thus) no decree entered by this Court can mandate any change in the Corps’ operations in the (Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River) Basin.”
Lancaster also summed up the stakes on both sides: “Both States warn of dire consequences … Florida of an ecological and economic disaster in the Apalachicola Region; Georgia of a crippled city and arid farmland in Georgia.”
Florida officials are hoping that, this time, the state will prevail in the lawsuit. No decision is expected until at least June.
For more information on Apalachicola Bay, visit www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/sites/apalachicola/aquatic.htm.