Georgia, Florida water battle goes to Supreme Court

Commercial boats docked in Florida's Apalachicola Bay. (© Emily Driscoll/SELC)

UPDATE (7/12/18): Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in the interstate water case Florida v. Georgia, sending the issue back to the special master. The court ruled that additional fact-finding and briefing of legal issues are necessary before a final decision can be made.

“This decision shows just how complicated these interstate water battles can be, particularly when there are key decision-makers missing from the table,” said Gil Rogers, Director of SELC’s Georgia and Alabama offices. “Allowing for additional briefing will hopefully provide an opportunity to forge a better, long-term solution for the river system overall.”

Last week, before the U.S. Supreme Court, Georgia and Florida presented oral arguments in the decades-long battle between the two states over water rights. It was the first time the Supreme Court has weighed in on the ongoing dispute.

Rather than accepting the earlier special master’s recommendation from 2016 that sided with Georgia, the fact that the Supreme Court will be hearing oral arguments could be an encouraging sign for Florida’s case. Florida argues that increasing water use from the metro Atlanta area and Georgia agriculture is drying up the Apalachicola Bay and has requested Georgia put a cap on its water use.

Gil Rogers, director of SELC’s Georgia and Alabama offices, has been following these tri-state water wars for years and attended the Supreme Court hearings.

“The justices’ questions seemed to be implicitly acknowledging that there is a real problem in the Apalachicola river system, that they’re not getting enough water in Florida,” said Rogers. “I think they’re just wrestling with what, if anything, they can do about it.”

Alabama is also involved in the negotiations over water allocation as the watershed in question crosses into the state. But Alabama didn’t have a seat at the table in these latest hearings in large part due to the lack of a state water plan. While SELC was part of the initial meetings begun in 2015 to start developing recommendations for a state water plan, Governor Kay Ivey recently disbanded the groups and it is unclear how the process will be revived.

Even with this interstate water fight going before the nation’s highest court, a final resolution is not necessarily imminent. Without an established limit on the amount of water Georgia uses, the state has no incentive to curb its water usage. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision on these most recent hearings by June.

Read more about the case in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and hear Gil Rogers comment on the case for Florida public radio.

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