The Supreme Court is giving Florida another chance to make its case that Georgia uses too much water and leaves too little for its southern neighbor.
The justices ruled 5-4 Wednesday in the long-running dispute between the two states. The fight is over Georgia's use of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers that serve booming metro Atlanta and Georgia's powerful agricultural industry.
Ruling in Florida’s favor were Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices William Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotamayor, all concurred with the opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer. Voting no were Justices Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan, and Neal Gorsuch, who joins in Justice Clarence Thomas’ dissent.
The court said that a special master appointed to hear the lawsuit should reconsider Florida's argument that limiting how much water Georgia uses would provide more for the Apalachicola River that flows into Apalachicola Bay and the nearby Gulf of Mexico.
The special master had recommended to the court that it side with Georgia and reject Florida's call for limiting water consumption from the Flint River.
“Today’s ruling is a huge win for the entire state of Florida," said Gov. Rick Scott. "As governor, protecting the families whose livelihoods rely on the Apalachicola Bay has been a top priority. For nearly 30 years and under five governors, Florida has been fighting for its fair share of water from Georgia. After decades of failed negotiations, we took our historic action to protect families all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I am glad that the court ruled in Florida’s favor today and we look forward to further securing a healthy Apalachicola Bay while protecting the thousands of jobs that depend on this natural resource. The best interest of these families will always come first," he said.
Comments flooded in from local and state legislators, and other interested parties.
U.S. Cong. Neal Dunn: “Today is a great day for North Florida and the future of the Apalachicola River and Bay. It’s clear – our fisheries, our economy, and our environment have been devastated over the years by Georgia’s unrestrained water use. The Supreme Court made the right decision today in recognizing that Florida has been harmed as a result of decreased water flow to the ACF River Basin. Now it’s time for the Special Master and Army Corps of Engineers to come up with an equitable solution. I will continue to fight for our River Basin and all those who rely on the water to make their livelihood.”
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson: “The Supreme Court decision has allowed Florida to fight in court another day. Let’s hope that day is not too late for Apalachicola Bay. This long-running dispute has cost Florida taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. Instead of forcing Georgia to send more water south into the bay, as Mother Nature intended, the Supreme Court has decided to prolong this process even further.”
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio: “This is a clear victory for Florida, but the fight for our Apalachicola River and Bay is not over. Today, the Supreme Court came one step closer to alleviating the decades of harm caused by Georgia’s disregard for the Panhandle’s vital economic and environmental resources. A big thank you to President Trump for overseeing the Army Corps’ change of attitude that made today’s decision possible.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham, who formerly represented Franklin County in Congress: “This is a bittersweet victory for the Apalachicola community just days after the Eastpoint fire. Sending the case back to the special master is a step in the right direction, but this crisis is far from over for the oystermen and families of Apalachicola.
"While Attorney General Pam Bondi and Governor Rick Scott are claiming a win today, this only went to the Supreme Court because of their mistakes. They have mismanaged the case for years, costing our state precious time and giving away millions in taxpayer funds that could have been better spent directly helping the Apalachicola community.”
“As governor, I will continue to pursue this legal action — and work with our partners in Washington to pass legislation like the bipartisan Apalachicola Bay Restoration Act to finally solve this decades-long crisis."
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who is also running for governor: "After a raging wildfire destroyed the homes and livelihoods of dozens of families this weekend, the Apalachicola Bay community needed some good news. Today’s Supreme Court decision is a victory for Floridians. For decades, we’ve fought on every front to save Apalachicola Bay and the history, culture and economy it supports. We’ll continue to fight for Apalachicola Bay and the livelihoods of those who depend on it.”
Tania Galloni, Earthjustice attorney who has filed a separate lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the National Wildlife Federation and the Apalachicola Riverkeeper
“The ruling is great news for Florida’s environment, drinking water supply and wildlife. We’re confident that Florida will be able to meet the Supreme Court’s test to show that reining in Georgia’s wasteful water consumption upstream will provide much needed freshwater to Florida downstream.
The lawsuit before the Supreme Court focuses on the Flint River in Georgia. We filed a separate lawsuit last year that addresses the Chattahoochee River, which joins with the Flint to become the Apalachicola River in Florida. The Army Corps of Engineers manages much of the water flow from the Chattahoochee River to the Apalachicola River with six dams along the Chattahoochee. The Army Corps of Engineers violated several environmental laws when it updated the plan to manage the river system and failed to perform an adequate environmental analysis of its actions as it’s required to do by federal law.
Cutting back the water that flows downstream from Georgia into Florida has had devastating impacts on the Apalachicola River ecosystem, one of the six “biodiversity hotspots” in the U.S. The lack of adequate freshwater flows has starved fish and shrimp populations, and led to the loss of more than 4.3 million trees. Many people lost their jobs after the population of Apalachicola Bay oysters crashed because the river wasn’t feeding enough freshwater into the area. At one time, the Apalachicola Bay provided 90 percent of Florida’s oysters and 10 percent of the whole country’s supply. A lack of freshwater flowing into the river jeopardizes the many species that live in the basin including the Florida black bear, the threatened West Indian Manatee and dozens of federally threatened or endangered species.”