The U.S. Supreme Court has sent a contentious water fight between Florida and Georgia back for more review.
Florida had asked the Supreme Court to cap how much water Georgia could take from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, which are used by Atlanta homes and businesses and by Georgia farmers. The two rivers combine to form Florida’s Apalachicola River, important to that state’s oyster industry.
Apalachicola’s oyster fishery has suffered in recent years. Florida said it’s because not enough water flows out of Georgia. Georgia has said the problems are due to Florida’s own mismanagement following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Georgia also claimed that limiting its water use wouldn’t necessarily address Florida’s problems, since the Army Corps of Engineers operates the dam that controls how much water flows out of Georgia and down the Apalachicola River.
Ralph Lancaster, the special master appointed by the Supreme Court to manage the case, agreed with Georgia’s position. In a recommendation to the court last year, he said that even though Florida does seem to be suffering from a lack of water, and even though Georgia seems to be irresponsible with water use, he didn’t believe that limiting Georgia would fix Florida’s problem.
In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court did not follow the special master’s recommendation to hand the win to Georgia, instead sending it back to Lancaster.
The court is asking Lancaster to continue to explore whether limiting Georgia’s water use would help Florida.
“It’s not clear whether the court would ultimately come down on the side of Georgia or Florida, but at least for now, Florida’s case remains alive, and I think this is a pretty significant ruling, and Georgia should be taking it very seriously,” said Gil Rogers, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Georgia office.
In his opinion, Breyer focused especially on agricultural water use along the Flint River, asking the special master to examine if a cap on Georgia’s use of Flint River water would lead to more water flowing down the Apalachicola, and if that additional water would address Florida’s problems.
Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, said the Supreme Court’s opinion gives him hope for the Apalachicola Bay.
“Our bay’s just about completely destroyed,” he said. “It’s terrible down here because of the lack of water.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott treated Wednesday’s decision as a win.
“I am glad that the court ruled in Florida’s favor,” Scott said in a statement. “We look forward to further securing a healthy Apalachicola Bay while protecting the thousands of jobs that depend on this natural resource.”
But on the Georgia side, the view is that this case is far from over.
“Florida has many things that it has to prove that may be very difficult for it to prove before it can impose any sort of consumption cap on Georgia,” said attorney Bruce Brown, who represented Georgia in earlier water wars cases.
Gov. Nathan Deal said he’s committed to defending Georgia’s water use.
“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,” Deal said in a statement.
The fights over water between the states have lasted for decades and have played out in the courts, in Congress and between the governors of Florida, Alabama and Georgia. On Tuesday, Deal said he regrets not being able to resolve the water wars, despite at one point getting close to an agreement with the other governors.
“It is one of those issues that will continue to be a concern for both the state of Georgia, the state of Alabama and the state of Florida,” he said.
There are other lawsuits concerning the rivers shared by the states.