Supreme Court extends Florida-Georgia water fight

Supreme Court extends Florida-Georgia water fight

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth drives his boat on the Chattahoochee River on in April 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday directed an expert judge to revisit key aspects of Florida’s water rights case against Georgia, a disappointing legal outcome for the Peach State after it racked up several recent victories in court related to its long-running water dispute with its neighbors.

The justices in their 5-4 opinion told Ralph Lancaster Jr., the so-called "special master" who recommended last year that the court dismiss Florida's case, to conduct further legal proceedings with a lower burden of proof for Florida to show injuries at the hands of Georgia.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer concluded Lancaster initially “applied too strict a standard” when he determined the court could not find a solution to the water fight that would lead to more water flowing downstream to Florida.

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The court’s ruling scrambles even further the long-running natural resources fight between Georgia and its neighbors, virtually ensuring the battle will drag on for the indefinite future. It does not guarantee Florida a future victory against Georgia at the high court, but it does keep the state’s legal challenge alive, which the latter had sought to dismiss.

In addition to the Supreme Court battle, three additional cases related to a pair of river basins originating in Georgia are currently winding their way through the federal court system.

The justices’ opinion on Wednesday did not go as far as prescribing a specific remedy for the water battle such as limiting Georgia’s water use.

It was the last opinion to be announced by the court for its 2017-2018 term.

Three-decade fight

The Florida-Georgia case marks the first time the Supreme Court has gotten involved in Southeastern water wars, which have raged for nearly three decades. The battles have pittted Georgia against Florida and its frequent ally, Alabama, and has cost the parties involved tens of millions of dollars.

At the heart of the Supreme Court fight is the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin, which originates in North Georgia, feeding Lake Lanier, and follows the Alabama border to the Florida Panhandle.

Florida filed the case five years ago following the collapse of its oyster industry in the Apalachicola Bay. It argued the water usage of metro Atlanta and southwest Georgia farms upstream had aided in the decline of the bay's ecological and economic decline. Florida's attorney argued before the justices that the state "suffered real harm" at the hands of Georgia and that the justices should impose a cap on Georgia's water usage at roughly 1992 levels — when metro Atlanta was home to only half as many people as it is today — so more water can flow downstream.

Alabama was not a party to the case but aligned itself with Florida.

Georgia countered that its water use had little to do with the collapse of the oyster industry and argued the justices should uphold Lancaster's recommendations — which essentially handed Georgia a victory based on a technicality. Because Florida had not included the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a party to the case, Lancaster wrote after hearing five weeks of testimony, there were no legal remedies available that would lead to more water for Florida because the corps is the agency that regulates dams and hence water flow.

Lancaster, though, did excoriate Georgia for not being a more responsible steward of its water, particularly within its agriculture sector. And he urged the governors of Georgia, Florida and Alabama to strike a congressionally approved compact dictating water usage in order to avoid a costly legal fight — an outcome that for decades has proved to be elusive.

Georgia lawyers have argued that the state has been a responsible steward of its water, cutting down on consumption in metro Atlanta even as the region’s population has exploded. They have argued that capping the state’s water usage would have a devastating impact on the Georgia’s economy, costing some $18 billion.

A parallel fight on Capitol Hill involving lawmakers from the three states is also likely to continue to play out, especially now that Alabama's senior senator is the new chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.