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U.S. Supreme Court Wades Into The Florida And Georgia Water War

Wikimedia Commons
A panorama view of Apalachicola River from Florida's Torreya State Park.

The legal fight between Florida and Georgia over water flow into the Apalachicola River will move before the full U.S. Supreme Court.The nation's highest court announced Tuesday that it will be setting a date for oral arguments in the case during its current term, which runs through June.

“The exceptions to the special master's report are set for oral argument in due course,” the court said in a one-sentence announcement.

The decision is significant in that it will give Florida another chance to raise objections to a special master's report issued earlier this year that recommended that Florida be denied any relief in its decades-old fight with Georgia over water flow through the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.

“We are pleased the Supreme Court granted oral argument and look forward to presenting our arguments in court,” said Kylie Mason, the press secretary for Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Florida filed a lawsuit in 2013, alleging Georgia diverts too much water from the river system and that the diversions have damaged Apalachicola Bay and Franklin County's seafood industry.

Georgia has argued that any limits on its water use will undermine its economy, including the growth of the Atlanta area and the state's agriculture industry in southeastern Georgia.

Ralph Lancaster, a Maine lawyer appointed as a special master in the case by the Supreme Court, ruled in February that Florida has not proven “by clear and convincing evidence” that imposing a cap on Georgia's water use “would provide a material benefit to Florida.”

Since Lancaster issued his report, lawyers for Florida and Georgia have continued their fight in a series of legal filings with the Supreme Court, with Florida asking the court to reject the special master's conclusion and return the case for more deliberation. Georgia has asked the court to endorse the special master's report.

A key issue before the court is Lancaster's finding that Florida be denied relief because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls water flow through the region in a series of dams and reservoirs, was not directly involved in the lawsuit.

In a brief filed this summer, the federal agency said it was possible that the court could impose a water-use cap on Georgia without requiring the Corps to change its policies for handling the dams and reservoirs in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.

But the Corps also warned that extensive changes in the water-flow policies in the region would be complicated by other legal requirements for other water projects and storage areas in the river basin.