Updated at 4:40 p.m. Thursday
The U.S. Supreme Court is rejecting a request by Florida to limit Georgia’s water use.
It’s the conclusion of a major, long-running case for the states, but it won’t be the end of their decades-long fight over water.
Georgia officials hailed it as a major win.
“The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision is a resounding victory for Georgia and a vindication of years-long effort by multiple governors and attorneys general here in the Peach State to protect our citizens’ water rights,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a written statement.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr told WABE he was excited. He said the Supreme Court had affirmed that “Georgia’s water use has been fair, and it has been reasonable.”
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried continued to blame Georgia in a written statement.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling is disappointing for the thousands of families whose livelihoods depend on the waters of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin,” she wrote.
“There will almost certainly be more lawsuits going forward if we don’t find a collaborative way to resolve this dispute once and for all,” said Gil Rogers, director of the Georgia office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Florida had claimed Georgia uses too much of the water in the rivers the states share, killing the oyster industry and harming the environment in the Apalachicola River in the Florida Panhandle.
Florida asked the court to put a cap on Georgia’s use of the water from the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, something officials here had warned could have devastating effects on Georgia’s economy.
Earlier in the case, which was first filed in late 2013, Florida had complained both about metro Atlanta homes and businesses and also about South Georgia farms. But as the suit continued, Florida came to focus on farmers along the Flint River.
Thursday morning, after hearing arguments twice over the years, the justices dismissed the case, saying Florida failed to prove that the damage to the oyster industry and to the environment were Georgia’s fault.
In her opinion, Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote that there were other factors that could have contributed to the low flows in the Apalachicola River: overharvesting of oysters after the BP oil spill, prolonged droughts and how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the dams on the rivers.
“The precise causes of the Bay’s oyster collapse remain a subject of ongoing scientific debate. As judges, we lack the expertise to settle that debate and do not purport to do so here,” she wrote.
Still, she said the justices could reach the decision that Florida had not met the burden of proof.
At the end of the opinion, Barrett made clear that Georgia isn’t totally off the hook.
“We emphasize that Georgia has an obligation to make reasonable use of Basin waters in order to help conserve that increasingly scarce resource,” she wrote.
Katherine Zitsch, managing director of natural resources at the Atlanta Regional Commission, said that though this was a big win for Georgia, the state does need to keep conserving water.
“We have cycles of floods and drought. We need to make sure we’re managing our water resources for now and into the future, both for us and to be good stewards of our water resources for our downstream neighbors,” she said.
There are two other lawsuits over water — involving Florida, Georgia and Alabama — still ongoing.
And water experts and advocates have said that litigation isn’t necessarily the best way to work out the states’ disagreements over water.
“This entire litigation — and it may not be over — is incredibly time-consuming and costly to the taxpayers of both Georgia and Florida,” said Georgia State University law professor Ryan Rowberry, “There are cheaper and more flexible and better ways to come to agreements.”
Especially, he said, in an era of climate change, when the frequency of droughts and of heavy storms will likely be altered in the future.
“George’s whole central argument is that wasn’t our fault. It was drought,” said Chris Mangianello, water policy director with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.
The flipside of that, though, is that Georgia has to keep demonstrating that it’s being a reasonable user of water, Mangianello said. Still, he said he does believe that the states can figure out a way to share the water.
Florida environmental advocate Georgia Ackerman, with the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, agreed.
“I think it’s really important that everybody understands that the water can be shared equitably, and it has to be shared equitably,” she said.
Rob Diaz de Villegas at WFSU in Tallahassee contributed to this report.