“Georgia scores major victory in water wars feud with Florida”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution – Greg Bluestein
Georgia won a major victory Tuesday in a long-running legal dispute with Florida with a court order avoiding strict new water consumption limits that officials said would have struck a devastating blow to the state’s economy.
The order by Ralph Lancaster, a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court to handle the case, found that Florida had “failed to show that a consumption cap” was needed after five weeks of hearing testimony in the case. It urges the nation’s highest court to deny Florida’s complaint.
It was celebrated by Georgia politicians, business boosters and agriculture groups that argued strict new water limits could cost the state billions of dollars. Florida contended a court defeat could endanger its environment and hobble its thriving oyster industry.
The fight between the two states – plus Alabama, which has been nervously watching the proceedings – involves water flowing from Lake Lanier downstream through Alabama to Florida’s Apalachicola Bay.
Georgia’s two neighbors have argued for decades that it has drawn more than its share from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, posing a threat to the ecological system and harming the livelihoods of their residents.
Georgia countered that the state’s water use had little to do with the collapse of the Apalachicola oyster industry. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave Georgia a stamp of approval last year when it said metro Atlanta would get virtually all the water it needs from Lanier through 2050.
Lancaster had practically begged Florida and Georgia to reach an out-of-court settlement, urging the attorneys for both states repeatedly to hash out a compromise before his ruling. Gov. Nathan Deal had a series of quiet meetings with his counterparts, but the sessions have yet to yield a public agreement.
Lancaster’s order is not final, as the U.S. Supreme Court can reject his findings or take another route. Congress could ultimately weigh in, and further lawsuits can’t be ruled out either. Still, Deal and other state leaders said Lancaster’s order vindicated Georgia’s argument.
Florida officials didn’t immediately comment, but the ruling did appear to leave an opening to launch another legal complaint. Lancaster hinted throughout his ruling that Florida made a grievous tactical error by not including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a party to the lawsuit.
“Without the Corps as a party, the Court cannot order the Corps to take any particular action,” his ruling read.
It was the latest victory for Georgia in a decades-long court fight with Florida and Alabama over how to share regional water resources. This particular feud started in 2013 when Florida sued Georgia claiming that metro Atlanta residents and southwest Georgia farmers hurt downstream aquatic species by using too much water.
Florida’s lawsuit aimed to cap Georgia’s overall water consumption and boost the amount of water it sends downstream during drought. And the U.S. Supreme Court shocked Georgia officials in November 2014 by agreeing to hear the case. Lancaster concluded five weeks of trial in Maine in early December.
The stakes are high. An economic analysis presented by Georgia during the trial warned that the state could suffer nearly $2.5 billion in economic losses each year if the verdict went against them. Florida argued the costs would be about $100 million.
The outcome also affects millions of residents along the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin, which spreads from metro Atlanta through Columbus, Albany, eastern Alabama and a large swath of the Florida Panhandle.