Georgia, Florida taking their water feud to New Mexico

A shrimp boat on the Apalachicola River at sunset.

Credit: Paul J. Milette/The Palm Beach Post

Credit: Paul J. Milette/The Palm Beach Post

A shrimp boat on the Apalachicola River at sunset.

The next chapter of Georgia’s long-running water wars with Florida will play out in a New Mexico courtroom.

Paul Kelly, the Santa Fe-based senior judge the Supreme Court appointed as the case's expert adjudicator, announced this week that the next round of oral arguments will occur in an Albuquerque federal courtroom on Dec. 16.

Florida and Georgia will each receive 45 minutes to summarize their arguments and answer questions from Kelly. Florida will also be given time for a rebuttal since it was the party that filed the case nearly five years ago.

After hearing oral arguments from both states in January 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 opinion that Florida's case be revisited, not dismissed as the original judge known as the "special master" had recommended.

Florida wants the government to “equally apportion” water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin, which originates near Lake Lanier and flows along the Alabama border to the Florida Panhandle, by capping Georgia’s water usage at roughly 1992 levels. Lawyers for the state have argued that lax conservation policies in metro Atlanta and particularly on South Georgia farms helped lead to the collapse of the oyster industry in the downstream Apalachicola Bay.

Georgia argues that it’s been a responsible steward of the state’s water and that it’s made particularly effective strides in metro Atlanta. The state says a water cap would have a catastrophic impact on the Georgia’s economy but negligible benefits for Florida’s water supply given the complicated way the Army Corps of Engineers manages the country’s locks and dams.

Read more: New judge means a restart in Georgia-Florida legal fight over water

This week's scheduling announcement marked the first public action taken by Kelly since justices appointed him the new special master a year ago this month.

The case’s first round of arguments generated more than 7 million pages of documents, 30 subpoenas, 30 expert reports and 100 depositions, Justice Clarence Thomas noted last year.

Kelly said he will not accept new evidence or expert testimony and that he’ll work off the record built during the case’s initial five-week trial in 2016. After hearing new oral arguments from Florida and Georgia, Kelly is expected to issue a recommendation to the Supreme Court, which could choose to hold another in-person argument of its own.

The case is just one front in Georgia's multi-pronged water wars with Florida and Alabama, which have stretched for several decades and gobbled up more than $50 million in taxpayer money.

As he left office last year, Republican Nathan Deal said failing to strike an accord with the state's two neighbors to end the litigation was one of his biggest regrets from his eight years as governor.

Gov. Brian Kemp said on the campaign trail last year that he wouldn't broker a compromise with Florida and Alabama solely for the sake of ending the waters wars if it would leave "hardworking Georgians high and dry."

“I won’t back down, blink or sacrifice our state’s future on the altar of expediency,” he said in July 2018.

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