Florida, Georgia prepare for federal "water wars" trial

Posted October 13

— A decades-long fight between Florida and Georgia over the supply of water in the states' shared watershed is headed to trial, despite the pleas of a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court to reach a settlement instead.

Florida's attorneys say water use has grown dramatically in the booming metropolitan Atlanta area and in southwest Georgia's agricultural industry, harming the environment and downstream industries including oyster fishing.

Georgia's lawyers say the state's water use isn't to blame for lower flows into Florida's Apalachicola Bay, and that capping its use of the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers will jeopardize Georgia's economy.

The arguments filed this week suggest neither state is backing down ahead of a trial beginning on Oct. 31 that could affect how the watershed serving Alabama, Florida and Georgia is used.

"I hope I live long enough to see it happen," said Special Master Ralph Lancaster, who was appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court to review Florida's 2013 lawsuit. "When this matter is concluded, at least one and probably both of the parties will be unhappy with the court's Order," he warned attorneys last year in a conference call.

The dispute focuses on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which drains nearly 20,000 square miles in western Georgia, eastern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. The Chattahoochee and Flint rivers meet at the Georgia-Florida border to form the Apalachicola, which flows into the bay and the Gulf of Mexico beyond.

Florida wants Georgia's water use to be capped annually, with additional cutbacks during drought years, so that Florida's oyster industry gets the balance of fresh and salt water it needs to survive. Federal authorities have blamed low flows from fresh-water rivers for throwing off that balance, which "will be catastrophic and irreversible" for the industry and environment without change, Florida argues in its brief.

Georgia's water consumption is "extreme" and significantly worsens already reduced flows, the brief said. "Equity requires that Georgia share the pain with Florida, not avoid it at Florida's expense."

Florida also argues that Georgia hasn't done enough to require water conservation in cities or efficiencies in agricultural uses. Georgia's attorneys deny this, saying the state has taken steps to conserve water, both by farms and by metro Atlanta's 5 million consumers.

Georgia attorneys hope to convince a court that Florida has failed to show that Georgia's water use directly harms the downstream environment or industries. The brief says that Florida's "own mismanagement" of the fishery has diminished the bay's oyster population and blames lower downstream flows on drought and the management of dams by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Attorneys for Georgia also argue that Florida hasn't shown that its proposed annual cap and added drought limits will have any positive influence downstream, but will harm industries that contribute almost $18 million annually to Georgia's economy.

"Florida proposes draconian reductions in Georgia's water use — cuts that will cost hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars and will generate a mere fraction of the water that Florida suggests," the brief said.

Both states indicated this month that a settlement is unlikely before the trial begins in Portland, Maine, where Lancaster is based.


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