Supreme Court gives verdict in Florida-Georgia water lawsuit
In a 5-4 decision made public on June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court sent the Florida-Georgia water lawsuit back to Special Master Ralph Lancaster to reconsider his recommendation.
In the majority opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court found that the special master applied too strict a standard in concluding Florida failed to demonstrate that the Court can reach a fair ruling.
The court also reserved judgment for the ultimate disposition of the case, addressing only the narrow “threshold” question the special master addressed - whether Florida has shown that its injury can “effectively be redressed by limiting Georgia’s consumptive use of water from the Basin without a decree binding the Corps.” The court found Florida showed that an effective remedy is possible.
“Georgia Farm Bureau had hoped that the Supreme Court would accept the recommendation to reject Florida’s request to have limits placed on Georgia’s use of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers. This long-standing dispute deserves a resolution. It is our hope that the continued litigation will serve to demonstrate that Georgia’s farmers practice responsible water use and continue to pursue efficient application of this most valuable of our natural resources.”
Florida filed the suit in 2013, claiming that excessive water withdrawals from Georgia users, including farmers, caused insufficient stream flows that resulted in harm to the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay on the Florida’s coast on the Gulf of Mexico.
The case, referred to as an equitable apportionment case, fell into the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction because it was a suit between states.
Florida asserted that excessive withdrawals from Lake Lanier to meet Metro Atlanta’s civic water needs combined with withdrawals from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers by farmers to irrigate their crops, caused diminished stream flows. The Chattahoochee and Flint flow into Lake Seminole, which feeds into the Apalachicola River in Northwest Florida. The lower stream flows, Florida claimed, caused increased salinity in the Apalachicola Bay, harming the oyster populations there.
Georgia argued that the oyster issues in the bay were the result of Florida’s oyster industry overharvesting the oysters in the bay.
The suit is the latest development in the decades-long water dispute between Georgia and Florida. Alabama, which was not a party in the suit, also has complained that Georgia takes excessive water from the Chattahoochee and Flint.
Georgia Farm Bureau filed an amicus brief to the court in 2016. In its brief, GFB pointed out the economic ramifications of drastic reduction or elimination of irrigation in Southwest Georgia. It was noted that water use has a $2.5 billion impact on the economy of Southwest Georgia. Half the counties in the Flint River Basin are designated by the USDA as “persistently poor” counties that depend on farming.
Lancaster was appointed as special master to manage the case and conducted the trial phase. In February 2017, he recommended denying Florida’s request, saying Florida failed to show that imposing a cap on Georgia’s water consumption from the Chattahoochee and Flint would solve the issues in Apalachicola Bay.
Lancaster noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls the flow of the Chattahoochee and Flint with a series of dams. Because the Corps of Engineers was not part of the lawsuit, Lancaster indicated he could not order it to alter the stream flows.
“Though the court remanded this case back to the special master following a five-week trial, during which the ineffectiveness of draconian caps placed on Georgia’s water use as a solution was demonstrated, I remain confident in the state’s legal position,” said Gov. Nathan Deal in a prepared statement. “Georgia heeded the special master’s warning and took legislative action, which is now law, to address his concerns. I look forward to continuing to defend our position in this case. Georgia remains committed to the conservation efforts that make us amicable stewards of our water resources and Attorney General Chris Carr and I remain committed to making every effort to defend Georgia’s water resources for our current and future citizens. We look forward to obtaining a positive ruling on the merits in this case.”