SAVANNAH, Ga. — Attorneys for the state of Georgia have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stay out of the latest legal battle in its 24-year fight over water rights with neighboring Florida.
Georgia filed its response last week to Florida’s request for the high court to intervene in deciding how they share water that flows across the state line where the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers merge to form the Apalachicola River. Florida officials said in an October complaint their state needs immediate relief as growing water consumption by metro Atlanta threatens Florida’s oyster fishery.
“Florida has brought its case against the wrong party, in the wrong court, and at the wrong time,” the Georgia lawyers wrote in their legal response.
The river system at the heart of the dispute serves Georgia, Florida and Alabama. The three states have been embroiled in legal battles since 1990 over how to share the water supply. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011 ordered the Army Corps of Engineers, which uses dams to control flows in the river system, to work on a new water allocation plan for the region.
Georgia officials argue the Supreme Court’s involvement would disrupt the work already underway by the Army Corps that could finally settle the tri-state water wars. And they contend Florida hasn’t met the high standard required for the nation’s highest court to hear a new lawsuit that didn’t originate in the lower courts.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott decided last fall to push ahead with the lawsuit following the near-collapse of the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay and after federal officials declared a fishery disaster for oystermen on the Gulf Coast. Florida officials blamed Georgia’s “unmitigated consumption of water,” primarily by metro Atlanta, for upsetting the balance of fresh and salt water that oysters need in order to thrive.
The complaint before the Supreme Court seeks to limit Georgia’s water consumption to 1992 levels.
“Generations of Florida families have relied upon these waters for their livelihood, but now risk losing their way of life if Georgia’s actions are not stopped,” Scott said when Florida filed its legal action last October.
Georgia says the Army Corps ultimately controls how much water flows into Florida via the Woodruff Dam near the state line and the federal agency should be allowed to finish its allocation plan, which could be ready next year, before the courts take any further action.
“Usually you would say we need an extra amount of water to protect our interest,” which would come from the Army Corps, said Judson Turner, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. “Just asking for a consumption cap on Georgia at 1992 levels doesn’t necessarily deliver you one more drop of water at the state line.”
The long-running dispute hinges over withdrawals from Lake Lanier, a federal reservoir on the Chattahoochee River that provides water to metro Atlanta. In 2009, a federal judge ruled that metro Atlanta had little right to take water from the lake. He then ordered that metro Atlanta’s water withdrawals would be drastically restricted unless the three states reached a settlement.
A three-judge panel from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling in 2011, finding that metro Atlanta could use the reservoir for water with restrictions. The court ordered the Army Corps to study how much water the north Georgia region can take from the system.
Georgia officials insist Florida has failed to link Atlanta’s water usage to the plight of oysters and say drought is more likely to blame. Florida officials say that assertion is contradicted by climate data on long-term rainfall.