SCOTUS Hears 'Water War' Arguments From Florida & Georgia

Jan 10, 2018

Credit supremecourt.gov

In the final installment of high-profile litigation in Florida in 2018, the nearly 30-year-old dispute over water rights between Florida and Georgia involving the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.

“Georgia has taken our water; the Corps of Engineers is not worried about us,” said Scott in 2013. “That’s why Florida’s going to file suit against Georgia, and take this all the way to the Supreme Court.”

The Court heard arguments Monday in the battle over the river system that dates back to 1990. The Governor announced the litigation back then in Apalachicola, which normally supplies 90 percent of the oysters in Florida and 10 percent nationwide.

“Florida argues that Georgia is taking too much water to supply Metro Atlanta’s needs,” said Jim Saunders is at The News Service of Florida. “And that not enough water is getting down to the Apalachicola River, and particularly Apalachicola Bay in Franklin County, and that’s hurt the oyster industry.”

After five weeks of hearings Ralph Lancaster, the court-appointed special master, ruled that Florida had “failed to show that a consumption cap” was needed in recommending last February that the justices side with Georgia.

“That’s only a recommendation, though, and now it’s in the court’s hands,” Saunders said.

Credit U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Florida has argued that Lancaster erred in further applying the “clear and convincing” evidence standard to the yet-to-be-determined water redistribution plan. Georgia claims that even if the court ordered a new plan, it wouldn't guarantee that Florida would receive more water since flow is controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through a series of reservoirs and dams in the river system.

“They all seemed to recognize the importance of Apalachicola and the necessity of enough water getting down into Florida and into the bay,” said Gil Rogers is with the Southern Environmental Law Center, who in the courtroom Monday.

He says the justices seemed engaged and open to all sides, including to fixes that could favor Florida.

“I just think they’re going to possibly differ over whether the solution is going to be some kind of cap in Georgia on water use, or not.”

The Corps’ absence seemed to frustrate the justices. However, it’s not clear whether the Corps has the authority to send more water to Florida to benefit the bay and the oyster harvest,

One thing is for sure; the meter is running on the legal fees. Last spring, the Florida House Appropriations Committee estimated that Florida had spent more than $72 million in legal fees from 2001 to early 2016.

There’s no word on when the high court will rule.

Alabama was also involved in the dispute, over concerns that Atlanta’s ever-increasing thirst for water would severely limit its own use of water for power generation, municipal supply, fisheries and other current and future uses. But, Alabama remains the only state involved in the water wars without a comprehensive water plan.