Georgia scores major victory in water wars feud with Florida

2:59 p.m Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017 Georgia Politics and Government
Drought and water consumption are part of the problem for the the near historic low water levels for the Flint River. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Georgia notched a victory in a long-running legal dispute with Florida on Tuesday when a judicial official urged the U.S. Supreme Court to reject strict new water consumption limits that Georgia said would have struck a devastating blow to the state’s economy.

The recommendation by Ralph Lancaster, a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court to handle the case, found that Florida had “failed to show that a consumption cap” was needed after five weeks of hearing testimony in the case.

The finding was celebrated by Georgia politicians, business boosters and agriculture groups that said strict new water limits could have cost the state billions of dollars. Florida said a court defeat could endanger its environment and hobble its thriving oyster industry.

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The dispute over water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers is more complex than one state against another state. (Erica A. Hernandez/AJC)

Lancaster’s finding is not final, as the high court can reject his recommendation or take another route. Congress could ultimately weigh in, and further lawsuits can’t be ruled out either. Still, Gov. Nathan Deal and other state leaders said Lancaster’s order vindicated Georgia’s argument.

“Georgia remains committed to the conservation efforts that make us amicable stewards of our water,” Deal said in a statement. “We are encouraged by this outcome which puts us closer to finding a resolution to a decades-long dispute over the use and management of the waters of the basin.”

The fight between the two states — plus Alabama, which has been nervously watching the proceedings — involves water flowing from Lake Lanier downstream through Alabama to Florida’s Apalachicola Bay.

Georgia’s two neighbors have argued for decades that the Peach State has drawn more than its share from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, posing a threat to the ecological system and harming the livelihoods of their residents.

Georgia countered that the state’s water use had little to do with the collapse of the Apalachicola oyster industry. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave Georgia a stamp of approval last year when it said metro Atlanta would get virtually all the water it needs from Lanier through 2050.

Lancaster had practically begged Florida and Georgia to reach an out-of-court settlement, urging the attorneys for both states repeatedly to hash out a compromise before he made his finding. Deal had a series of quiet meetings with his counterparts, but the sessions have yet to yield a public agreement.

Florida officials didn’t immediately comment, but Lancaster’s finding did appear to leave an opening to launch a separate legal complaint. Lancaster hinted throughout his recommendation that Florida made a grievous tactical error by not including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a party to the lawsuit.

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

A judge ruled in Georgia's favor in the decades-long water war.

It was the latest good news for Georgia in a decades-long court fight with Florida and Alabama over how to share regional water resources. This particular feud started in 2013 when Florida sued Georgia claiming that metro Atlanta residents and southwest Georgia farmers hurt downstream aquatic species by using too much water.

Florida’s lawsuit aimed to cap Georgia’s overall water consumption and boost the amount of water it sends downstream during drought. It sought to freeze consumption by metro Atlanta’s 5.4 million residents at 1992 levels, when the region’s population was 3 million.

The U.S. Supreme Court shocked Georgia officials in November 2014 by agreeing to hear the case. Lancaster concluded five weeks of trial in Maine in early December.

The stakes are high. An economic analysis presented by Georgia during the trial warned that the state could suffer nearly $2.5 billion in economic losses each year if the verdict went against it. Florida argued the costs would be about $100 million.

The outcome also affects millions of residents along the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin, which spreads from metro Atlanta through Columbus, Albany, eastern Alabama and a large swath of the Florida Panhandle.

In the closing days of the trial, state officials highlighted Georgia’s conservation efforts to argue that it was a good steward of water resources.

In a rare public appeal, Deal said Florida was forced to target Georgia’s agriculture industry in part because of successful conservation efforts by metro Atlanta. He pointed to data provided by his office that show metro Atlanta is withdrawing 10 percent less water over the past decade despite growing by more than 1 million people.

At the same time, Georgia poured an increasing amount of resources into winning the case. The legal costs of the case ballooned to nearly $30 million this year, and the governor recently beefed up the state’s legal staff and tapped a water czar to oversee the fight.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber, among the business boosters carefully watching the case, said in a statement that Lancaster’s order proved the work by Deal and other political leaders and industry officials to conserve water is paying off.

“The metro Atlanta region remains committed to investing in our conservation and efficiency efforts and ensuring a sustainable, long-term water supply for all Georgians,” said Katie Kirkpatrick, the chamber’s chief policy officer.

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