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Supreme Court to hear Florida-Georgia "water wars" case

Justices say they will hear oral arguments “in due course”
Apalachicola's oyster industry has been hurt by the battle over the river. Florida, Alabama and Georgia have been fighting since 1990 over the use of water from the river system, which flows into Apalachicola Bay.
Published Oct. 10, 2017

In an order issued Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear arguments in the long-running “tri-state water wars” case involving Florida and Georgia -- a case that has already run up astronomical legal bills for both states.

The high court did not say when it would hear oral arguments, except to say they would be scheduled “in due course.” The court’s current term began last week and will extend through next June or July.

The tri-state water wars, involving not just Florida and Georgia but also Alabama, have been going on since 1990. All three states lay claim to the water flowing through the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River Basin. Georgia needs it for the thirsty residents of growing Atlanta. Alabama needs it for the power plants built along the river. And Florida needs it to keep its famed Apalachicola oyster industry going.

In 2013, a day after federal officials declared the Apalachicola oyster industry a disaster area, Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced he would be suing Georgia for causing the decline of the industry. A seafood industry official estimated that in just one year about 60 people had quit the oyster business and moved away, tearing apart the town’s culture as well as its economy.

Suits between two states go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the court did agree to hear it in 2014. But the justices sent the two sides to a special master to hear the case and make a recommendation. In February, after five weeks of testimony and more than three years of proceedings, the special master ruled for Georgia.

Florida had sought to cap Georgia’s overall water consumption by metro Atlanta’s 5.4 million residents at 1992 levels, when the region’s population was 3 million. Forcing that cap would be the only way to save its oyster industry, the state argued.

Georgia officials, meanwhile, argued that Atlanta’s water usage is reasonable and that putting limits on it would cost the state’s economy billions of dollars. They also said an ongoing drought in the Florida Panhandle was more to blame for the decline of the oyster industry than anything they had done.

The special master ruled that Florida had failed to prove a consumption cap was necessary, and suggested that Scott had messed up by not including as a party to the case the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which bulit and controls the reservoir that supplies Atlanta’s water.

“Without the Corps as a party, the Court cannot order the Corps to take any particular action,” he wrote.

Florida, which has spent nearly $100 million on the case, objected to the special master’s ruling, and so it will at last face Georgia, which has spent $30 million, in front of the the black-robed justices sometime in the next eight months.