In the latest chapter in years of battling between Florida and Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday in a dispute about divvying up water in a river system shared by the states.
Florida filed a lawsuit in 2013 arguing that Georgia is using too much water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, which starts in northern Georgia and ends in Apalachicola Bay in Franklin County. Florida contends that the situation has caused damage to the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay’s signature oyster industry.
But federal appellate Judge Paul Kelly, a special master appointed by the Supreme Court, ruled in December 2019 that Florida had not adequately shown that Georgia’s water use caused problems in the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay. Kelly’s recommendation went to the Supreme Court, which has final say in the dispute.
In a brief filed at the Supreme Court, Florida’s attorneys attacked Kelly’s findings and argued that “Georgia’s insatiable upstream consumption (of water) has decimated Apalachicola’s oyster fisheries.”
“The harm to the Bay’s oyster fisheries is undeniable. Apalachicola is renowned across America for its oysters, which account for 90% of Florida’s oyster harvest and 10% of the nation’s,” the brief said. “What’s more, oysters --- and oystering --- have created a distinct way of life in Apalachicola passed down from generation-to-generation; whole communities depend on the fisheries for their economic livelihood. The oyster is to Apalachicola what the lobster is to many New England towns.”
But in a June document, Georgia disputed that its water use has caused damage in Florida. Also, it said Florida’s request for an “equitable apportionment” of water --- effectively seeking to place limits on Georgia water use --- would have major economic ramifications.
“The trial record showed that Georgia’s water use had not caused harm to Florida, that Georgia was using far less water than Florida alleged, and that the cap Florida seeks would yield only minuscule benefits to Florida while inflicting enormous costs on Georgia,” the document said.
If Florida is ultimately successful, that could mean putting restrictions on water used by Georgia farmers for irrigation.
Kelly, who is based in New Mexico, was appointed special master after a divided Supreme Court in 2018 overturned a recommendation by another special master, Ralph Lancaster, who said Florida had not proven its case “by clear and convincing evidence” that imposing a cap on Georgia’s water use would benefit the Apalachicola River.
Writing for a 5-4 majority, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said Lancaster had “applied too strict a standard” in rejecting Florida’s claim.
Kelly held a hearing and later agreed with Georgia’s position on the potential benefits and harms of placing limits on its water use.