The U.S. Supreme Court gave Florida another chance to show that Georgia's upstream water use should be capped to save the Panhandle's oyster industry in a ruling Wednesday that stopped short of resolving a nearly 30-year-old dispute.
In a 5-4 opinion, the justices said Florida should get another shot at showing that limiting Georgia's consumption could do what's needed to restore the fresh water flow into Apalachicola Bay to revive its oysters. The justices said a special master the court appointed to hear the case applied too strict a standard in requiring Florida to prove its case, and ordered him to reconsider.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott sued Georgia in 2013 after record low flows from the Apalachicola River caused the already ailing oyster industry to collapse. Scott's lawsuit accused Georgia of pulling too much water out to supply drinking and irrigation water to homes in growing Atlanta.
Scott hailed the ruling as "a huge win for the entire state of Florida." He did not address how Florida would approach the requirement for further proceedings, nor the already high cost of the case — $57 million in just the past four years.
Franklin County Commission Chairman Joseph "Smokey" Parrish, who represents Apalachicola, was more measured. He said sending the case back to the special master delays the final decision, but added, "but I'd rather them do that than rule against us."
Meanwhile Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said he's confident his state will ultimately prevail.
"I remain committed to making every effort to defend Georgia's water resources for our current and future citizens," he said in a statement. "We look forward to obtaining a positive ruling on the merits in this case."
Special master Ralph Lancaster Jr. said after the ruling that he could not comment or address questions about when he might schedule additional hearings.
The ruling says Florida will be entitled to a decree in its favor only if it is shown that "the benefits of the (apportioning the water flow) substantially outweigh the harm that might result."
Florida, Georgia and Alabama have been wrangling for 28 years over how much water Atlanta uses, a fight dubbed the Tri-State Water War. It has resulted in repeated court battles, congressional power plays and even a brief bid to move Tennessee's state line to give Georgia more water.
All three states lay claim to the water flowing through the interconnected Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint river basin.
The Chattahoochee flows south from Georgia to join Alabama's Flint River and become the Apalachicola River from the Florida state line to Apalachicola Bay. The bay used to produce 90 percent of all of Florida's oysters, and 10 percent of all the oysters consumed in the U.S.
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These days, those numbers have dwindled to almost nothing.
The balance of fresh and salt water in Apalachicola Bay is crucial to the growth and development of the oysters there. But the loss of fresh water flow during a 2013 drought turned the bay salty and so damaged the oyster beds that the area was declared a federal disaster. A seafood industry official estimated that in just that one year about 60 people quit the oyster business and moved away, tearing apart Apalachicola's culture as well as its economy.
To officials in Florida and Alabama, Atlanta is at fault for wasting water and failing to plan for its future. Florida's lawsuit 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.
Atlanta officials insist they're now doing more water conservation than anywhere else in the nation, and Florida and Alabama's water demands are unreasonable. Georgia's legal argument contended that Florida's oyster industry was hurt more by drought than water use to the north.
Atlanta, built as a railroad hub atop a high ridge, is the largest American city without a major body of water nearby. It cannot pump water from underground because it sits above nonporous hard rock. Instead, Atlanta relies on federal reservoirs.
One of them, Lake Sidney Lanier, provides three-fourths of its water. Lake Lanier was created in the 1950s when the Corps of Engineers built a dam on the Chattahoochee River.
Despite repeated negotiations among the states, nobody has come up with a compromise that suits everyone. Meanwhile, Georgia's consumption is expected to nearly double by 2035 to 705 million gallons a day.
The Corps manages the flow in and out of Lake Lanier, which means it controls the Apalachicola, too. Corps officials have said they must operate the reservoir according to the law Congress passed authorizing its construction. That law mentions Atlanta's water supply, but says nothing about helping Florida oysters.
Florida and Alabama have sued the Corps before, winning at the federal court level before seeing an appeals court reverse the decision.
So in 2013, after the federal disaster declaration, Gov. Scott announced that Florida would sue Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The justices appointed a special master to hear the case, and last year he recommended that they side with Georgia. He said Florida had failed to prove a consumption cap was necessary, and suggested that Scott's legal team stumbled by not including the Corps as a party to the case.
But during oral arguments six months ago, several justices suggested he had been unfair to Florida.
"Can we agree that a cap at the very least would prevent the situation in Florida from getting worse?" Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said then.
The opinion Wednesday was written by Justice Stephen Breyer.
Contact Craig Pittman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @craigtimes.