U.S. Supreme Court Hears Water Dispute Between Florida, Georgia

Jan 9, 2018
Originally published on January 9, 2018 8:10 am
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Georgia and Florida have been fighting over water for nearly 30 years. Florida says Georgia uses too much from the rivers that the states share, and this week this fight escalated all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Molly Samuel from member station WABE in Atlanta was at yesterday's oral arguments.

MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: Florida is suing Georgia. It says that Atlanta homes and businesses and South Georgia farms consume too much water, so much that it's hurt the environment and the fishing industry in the Florida Panhandle. The Apalachicola Bay is famous for its oysters, but it's in rough shape. In 2012 following a drought, the federal government declared the fishery a disaster, and people down there say it's never really recovered.

DAN TONSMEIRE: Florida has to have more water.

SAMUEL: Dan Tonsmeire is with the Florida environmental group Apalachicola RiverKeeper.

TONSMEIRE: The only place to get that is for Georgia to use less.

SAMUEL: So Florida asked the Supreme Court to limit how much water Georgia is allowed to use. The court designated a man known as a special master to hear evidence in the case and to make a recommendation. His name is Ralph Lancaster. Last year he suggested that the court deny Florida's request for a cap on Georgia's water use. But he wasn't totally siding with Georgia. Lancaster agreed with Florida that the Apalachicola Bay and its oyster industry are in trouble and that Georgia has managed water irresponsibly. But here's the sticking point. Lancaster didn't agree that limiting Georgia's water use would fix anything because there are a bunch of dams in this river system, and they're managed by the federal government. The Army Corps of Engineers decides how much water flows out of those dams into Florida. Lancaster says capping Georgia's water use wouldn't change that amount.

During arguments yesterday, not all of the justices seemed to buy that. Justice Ginsburg asked if there wasn't something the court could do to help Florida's Apalachicola Bay or at least keep the situation from getting any worse. Gil Rogers is an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, who attended the arguments.

GIL ROGERS: That may spell the fact that the court is willing to allow Florida to have another go of proving its case and showing how changes in Georgia could benefit things on the Florida side of the line.

SAMUEL: The justices don't have to take the special master's recommendation. They could side with Florida or send the case back to the special master in the states to tell them to gather more evidence. Tonsmeire, from Florida's Apalachicola Riverkeeper, says he hopes the justices rule in a way that would get the states to sit down, and, after decades of fighting, finally agree on a solution.

TONSMEIRE: The litigation has made both collaboration and communication almost impossible for so many years.

SAMUEL: Whatever the ruling in this case, it won't be the end of the water wars in the Southeast. In recent years, even more lawsuits have been filed over how to manage this water. For NPR News, I'm Molly Samuel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.