Attorneys for Florida and Georgia appeared in court Thursday for a case in the decadeslong water wars.
Florida says Georgia uses too much water, and that’s harming the Apalachicola Bay in the panhandle, and the oyster industry that relies on it. It’s asked the U.S. Supreme Court to limit how much water Georgia can use.
Initially, Florida was critical both of metro Atlanta’s water use from the Chattahoochee and of farmers’ water withdrawals in the Flint River basin, but the case has come to focus on the Flint River and the farmers there.
“Georgia will continue to use just more and more water if they don’t have some sort of limit placed on them,” said retired Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire. He attended the arguments, which were in front of a judge in New Mexico who was appointed to manage the case.
“I hope my friends in Georgia will forgive me for this because I know there are a lot of Georgians that care about the Apalachicola and understand what a valuable resource it is,” he said. “I saw no sign that Georgia’s awareness of the impacts to the Apalachicola River and Bay that it’s caused has increased.”
Georgia has said that even if its water use were to be limited, that wouldn’t guarantee a fix for Florida. And it argues the harm that would be caused to Georgia’s farmers and economy outweigh the benefits to Florida.
Those are two of the main sticking points in the case, according to Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s water policy director Chris Mangianello, who also attended the hearing.
“I think that Georgia remains unconvinced that Florida has demonstrated that any benefit to Florida will not harm Georgia,” he said.
The states also couldn’t agree on water use data.
Jeff Wechsler, a water attorney in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who’s not involved in the case, decided to watch the hearing. He says the case has lawyers grappling with what Florida needs to prove. It’s also raised issues around the role of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since it operates the dams in the river system. And, he said, the different sides in the case are interesting.
“I think there’s a tension in this case between existing human uses and the ecological functions that Florida is relying on, and that might have broader implications beyond this case,” he said.
Judge Paul Kelly, the court-appointed special master in the case, will next write a report on what he thinks should happen, and the Supreme Court justices will evaluate that.
A previous special master in the case sided with Georgia, but the Supreme Court sent the case back to get more questions answered.