In this 2015 file photo, John Stokes, center, culls Apalachicola oysters while his two sons Ryan, left, and Wesley Stokes tong oysters from the bottom of Apalachicola Bay. The region’s oyster industry is at the heart of the Florida-Georgia Supreme Court case justices ruled on July 27, 2018. 
Photo: AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser, File
Photo: AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser, File

What comes next in Georgia’s water wars?

The justices’ 5-4 ruling will extend that pricey legal battle for months or possibly even years, legal observers say. 

Beyond the Supreme Court battle, there are three other federal cases related to water use in Georgia that will eat up time and taxpayer money for years to come. 

In two of those cases Alabama has sued the Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates the country’s locks and dams, over its master plan for divvying water in a pair of river basins that originate in north Georgia and eventually empty into the Gulf of Mexico. 

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

The first case challenges the corps’ plans for the dams in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint, the basin at the heart of the Florida-Georgia Supreme Court case. Under that blueprint, announced in late 2016, the corps essentially gave metro Atlanta all the water it needs from the Chattahoochee River and Lake Lanier through 2050. 

Alabama, the Florida Wildlife Federation and other groups say the corps didn’t properly address several environmental concerns they raised during the federal comment period. The argue the plan would allow the corps to operate its local projects in an “arbitrary and capricious manner” that will harm Alabama. 

Georgia’s western neighbor similarly challenged the corps’ water allocation plan for the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basin, which originates in Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and flows through Lake Allatoona and eventually Alabama’s Mobile Bay. 

The state of Georgia; Atlanta Regional Commission, which helps oversee metro Atlanta’s water plans; and other metro Atlanta entities have intervened in favor of the corps in both cases. 

Florida is not a party to either case but could opt to join later now that it has at least a tentative ruling from the Supreme Court. 

In a third federal lawsuit, the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority sued the corps for allegedly violating a water contract from 1963 in Lake Allatoona. 

(The Saporta Report has detailed write-ups of all three cases here.)

Then there’s the Supreme Court case, which will soon see a second round of hearings before a court-appointed expert judge. 

Justices have raised five specific questions they would like that judge to answer that essentially seek to evaluate the harm Florida has suffered at the hands of Georgia and whether a legal remedy exists that could help Florida. (Lara Fowler over at SCOTUSblog succinctly lays out those questions here.)

Maine judge Ralph Lancaster Jr. has served as that so-called “special master” for the Florida-Georgia case since 2014, sifting through some 7.2 million pages of documents; 130 subpoenas; 30 expert reports and 100 depositions, according to Justice Clarence Thomas’ tally. Justices could choose to keep the no-nonsense octogenarian around for the next round of arguments or opt to select someone else. 

The Supreme Court has yet to announce a schedule for the upcoming arguments, but that is expected to come in the months ahead. Proceedings from there could take months, a year or far longer. 

As we noted yesterday, the water fight in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin alone has cost Georgia some $47 million since Gov. Nathan Deal took office. Expect legal costs to keep mounting for the current governor and his eventual replacement. 

There are two other avenues to watch beyond the courts: the executive and legislative branches. 

The governors of Florida, Alabama and Georgia could sit down and hammer out a tri-state compact, as Lancaster and others have pushed for years. Those deals are politically, legally and environmentally complicated and have eluded Deal throughout his tenure. They would also need to be greenlit by Congress, no small matter in these gridlocked time. 

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have also tried to move the needle on the water fight, the Alabamians typically locking arms with their Florida counterparts. Georgia congressmen have been able to rebuff legislative actions from their neighbors in recent years, but its possible the tables could turn now that a powerful Alabama Republican has received a major promotion

Read more: Supreme Court punts on Florida-Georgia water fight

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman is a senior reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's enterprise team, where she covers women in society, LGBTQ issues, the urban-rural...