Deal raises concerns for Georgia farmers as ‘water war’ trial nears end

South Georgia farmers, not metro Atlanta lawn-lovers, have been sitting squarely in the legal cross hairs of Florida attorneys over the past month during the “water war” trial expected to conclude this week in this cold and rainy seaport town.

Tuesday, Gov. Nathan Deal unexpectedly jumped into the middle of the legal fray to defend Georgia’s water conservation efforts and warn that court-imposed water reductions would be a “disaster for agriculture.” The governor’s comments were even more surprising given the court’s admonition to Georgia and Florida negotiators to keep confidential their talks aimed at resolving the 27-year-old legal battle between the states.

Indeed, Ralph Lancaster Jr., who was appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court as a special master to resolve the water war, appeared taken aback late Tuesday morning when he asked the lawyers, scientists, environmentalists and others gathered in a bankruptcy court about Deal.

“Do you know what he’s talking about?” Lancaster said aloud. “Just curious.”

The trial entered its fifth week Tuesday with Florida, yet again, trying to tear apart Georgia witnesses defending the state’s conservation and farming practices. It is expected to end this week, whereupon the master will solicit final written arguments from Georgia and Florida before making his decision sometime next month. The nation’s highest court would then consider Lancaster’s decision.

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Florida sued Georgia in 2013 claiming the upstream state hoards water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, and adjoining aquifers, to the economic and ecological detriment of the Apalachicola River and bay.

The Sunshine State wants the special master to equitably distribute the water by capping overall water use in Georgia and guaranteeing a healthy flow of river at the Florida line at all times.

The stakes are huge for Georgia: A consumption cap could sharply curtail metro Atlanta’s future development. And southwest Georgia farmers might lose some access to the underground aquifers that water their corn, cotton and peanuts.

Florida’s lawsuit cited “massive” withdrawals of groundwater by the farmers during the last bad Georgia drought, which ended in 2012. A Georgia official, in a pretrial filing, said “there is no doubt that we need a viable management tool to deal with drought in the Flint River Basin.”

Dan Tonsmeire, the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, said after trial Tuesday that “until Georgia gives up on the idea that upstream consumptive use has little to no impact on downstream flows, this fight will never end and the opportunities for resolution will be missed.”

But Sorab Panday, a hydrological expert testifying on behalf of Georgia, said groundwater pumping by farmers has only a “negligible” impact on stream flows across South Georgia and, therefore, isn’t to blame for the paucity of water reaching Florida.

During the 2012 drought, though, Georgia imposed a moratorium on wells tapping the Flint and the underlying Floridan aquifer. Ever-resourceful farmers just dug deeper wells to tap into other aquifers.

Clearly cognizant of the targeted farmers, while also bolstering an economically and politically powerful Georgia lobby, Deal weighed in Tuesday on the trial. In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the governor said farmers — not attorneys or judges — should be allowed to make planting decisions “on their own, based on market prices for the commodities they produce.”

“They should not have an artificial process to grow their crops,” the governor said.

Deal also defended the state’s conservation efforts, particularly metro Atlanta’s 10 percent reduction in water usage over the past decade when the population soared by 1 million people.

“We feel we have a very strong case,” he said. “Hopefully, the special master will give due attention to the fact that we’ve not just ignored the issue. We’ve taken proactive steps.”

Deal has largely avoided discussing the water war in public ever since Lancaster, in April 2015, granted both states a “confidentiality order” to keep quiet efforts to mediate the dispute. Lancaster further admonished governors and their attorneys to stop talking to reporters. Deal himself said in April that he was under a gag order due to the litigation.

“Absolutely, there are risks in what the governor is saying, but the special master has already warned that Georgia will not completely get its way in the trial,” said Ryan Rowberry, a Georgia State University professor who worked on behalf of Florida in a previous water war skirmish. “So it’s a political move to get out in front of whatever decision is made and to assure one of the largest business interests in Georgia that he’s got their back.”

Deal, who noted that the trial has already trod agricultural ground, said he was therefore free to discuss some of the case’s details.

“We’ve spent $24 million in legal expenses (this year) to fight this issue and this case,” he said. “That’s a significant investment in taxpayer money. And we’ve done so because I realize the significant consequences that could come from this.”

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