A child plays near a North Georgia lake in June 2017. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM.

Justice Department filing buoys Georgia in water wars case

The Justice Department waded into Georgia’s long-running dispute with Florida on Tuesday with a legal filing that suggested imposing new limits on Georgia’s water consumption might not lead to more water for its neighbor.

The filing said it is possible to design a consumption cap that would provide Florida with more water, but that it would require a delicate new round of environmental reviews and hearings for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to “adjust its operations to the extent permissible under law” that’s consistent with congressional guidelines.

The Justice Department was careful not to pick sides in the decades-long fight. But the state’s boosters see Tuesday’s filing as a blow to Florida’s request that the U.S. Supreme Court reverse a special master’s recommendation to reject strict new water consumption limits that could have hobbled the Georgia’s economy.

The special master overseeing the case, Ralph Lancaster, concluded in February that Florida had “failed to show that a consumption cap” was needed after five weeks of hearing testimony in the case.

Florida and Alabama have argued for decades that Georgia 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 politicians, agricultural leaders and business boosters celebrated the judicial official’s finding, warning that strict new water limits could have cost the state billions of dollars. But the Supreme Court could dismiss the recommendation, call for more hearings or take another legal route.

The legal fight is far from over, and about a half-dozen other cases are still pending. Florida or Alabama could ignite a new legal battle with another court filing.

Meanwhile, state leaders are scrambling to shore up weaknesses exposed by the litigation while bracing for a new fight in Congress that could undercut the state’s courtroom success.

More: Why Georgia’s water wars is far from over

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