The Army Corps of Engineers overstepped its authority five years ago when it granted Georgia additional water rights that affected rivers in Florida and Alabama, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
Florida experts were elated, saying the decision will "level the playing field" in a multistate tug-of-war over water that spans nearly 20 years.
"It's tremendous, because now we're all back to where we ought to be," said Dan Tonsmeire with the Apalachicola Riverkeeper environmental advocacy group. "Nobody has an advantage."
The water wars are over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint rivers system, whose flow is controlled by the corps.
For Florida, what's at stake is the Apalachicola River and the nearly $200-million oyster and seafood industry that depends on it. For Georgia, it's the water supply for Atlanta and surrounding industry, like Coca-Cola. For Alabama, it's the ability to turn the lights on throughout most of the state.
In 2003, Florida and Alabama complained Georgia got the upper hand in water negotiations, when the corps, Georgia and other water providers unveiled a settlement agreement, that gave Georgia up to 20 years worth of "temporary" use of reservoir tied into the river system. Florida and Alabama sued to stop the deal, but lost.
On Tuesday, the federal appeals court in Washington said Georgia and the corps, don't have the authority to dedicate that much water to Atlanta without first asking Congress, because such an agreement "constitutes a major operational change," wrote the three-judge panel.
The agreement between the corps and Georgia has never been implemented due to the litigation.
Nonetheless, Florida Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole, Gov. Charlie Crist's office and environmental advocates said they were elated.
"This is the most significant legal decision in the history of this dispute, and it should stop Georgia's attempt at a secret water grab dead in its tracks," said Chris Kise, a legal adviser in private practice who has worked on the case since he was state's solicitor general. "Hopefully, this decision will pave the way for real negotiations."
It's unclear whether the corps or the state of Georgia will push for an appeal. Spokesmen for both entities said they're reviewing the opinion but not ruling anything out.
All three states remain deep in talks that have become more urgent due to drought. Top water negotiators are planning to meet again next week in Alabama for two days.
They're scheduled to complete a new water plan in coming weeks, with a goal of getting it approved by federal officials by March 15.
"We are going to continue the process of negotiations and discussions with our neighbors, that is certainly the most important thing we're doing," said Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. "While our preference is to settle, we will always keep our legal options open."