U.S. Supreme Court to hear Georgia water rights case

October 20, 2016 Talbot County, GA: 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

October 20, 2016 Talbot County, GA: 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

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday said it plans to hear Georgia’s long-running water rights case with Florida this term, setting up what could be final arguments in the state’s expensive legal fight that has involved officials from Maine to Capitol Hill.

In an order issued on Tuesday morning, the high court did not set a date for oral arguments but said it would hear them "in due course." The court's term began last week and will extend through June or July.

The announcement, which was expected by stakeholder groups, comes after Ralph Lancaster, a special master appointed by the Supreme Court, handed Georgia a major victory in February when he rejected Florida's argument that Georgia's water consumption should be limited.

Florida has argued that Georgia’s water use has hobbled its oyster industry and could endanger its environment. Georgia said its water usage is reasonable and that putting limits on it would cost the state’s economy billions of dollars.

The nine Supreme Court justices could approve or reject Lancaster’s recommendation or direct him to revisit his decision. Congress could also weigh in — lawmakers from Georgia, Florida and neighboring Alabama have all tangled to have their say — and other lawsuits are possible.

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