Georgia, Alabama, and Florida have engaged in a decades-long war over water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin (known locally as the “Water Wars”). Residents of metro Atlanta, agricultural interests throughout Georgia, energy interests in Alabama, and those with economic and environmental interests in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay all compete over a sometimes scarce resource.
The US Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) is tasked with maintaining dams and reservoirs in the basin and appropriating water based on a congressional mandate dating back several decades. Generally speaking, when it comes time to appropriate water, the Corps favors the population centers in Georgia over neighboring agricultural interest and even more over fishing, economic, and environmental interests in Florida.
In the late 2000’s, a Florida federal district court told the Corps they had to reduce metro Atlanta’s water supply to 1990’s levels and provide more water for downstream interests in Florida. However, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed this decision and largely upheld the Corps’ current appropriation standards. In late 2014, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear Florida’s complaint against Georgia asking the Court to equitably apportion water in the ACF Basin.
We’ve posted three parts of a four-part series on the Water Wars that traces the conflict from the original federal laws calling for construction of dams in the ACF Basin up to the present day Supreme Court case between Georgia and Florida over water rights. We’ll also provide links and brief commentary on related issues and updates as they happen.
Georgia’s Conservation Measures Prove Pivotal in the Water Wars (December 19, 2019)
The Supreme Court Can’t Solve the Water Wars (July 10, 2018)
Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Florida in Water Wars Case (June 27, 2018)
Is the Supreme Court Capable of Valuing the Environment – a recap of the Florida v. Georgia Supreme Court oral argument (January 15, 2018)
The Georgia-Florida Water War Reaches Its Boiling Point (Dec 11, 2016)
April 2, 2021
Yesterday, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously to dismiss Florida’s request for equitable apportionment of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Water Basin. In her opinion for the Court, Justice Barrett concluded that Florida failed to show by clear and convincing evidence that Georgia’s overconsumption of water in the Basin was the reason why Florida’s oyster population collapsed. Rather, the Court found that extensive evidence exists showing that Florida’s mismanagement of the oyster ecosystem contributed to the collapse. This ends eights years of litigation in front of the Supreme Court, but certainly does not end water-related disputes between the states.
January 1, 2021
The US Supreme Court has calendared February 22, 2021 to hear another round of oral arguments between Florida and Georgia. In spring of 2018, despite a recommendation from the special master to dismiss Florida’s suit against Georgia, the Court ruled 5-4 that the special master should continue investigating whether water between the states could be equitably apportioned. In December of 2019, the special master again concluded that Georgia’s use of water is reasonable. The Court will now hear arguments from the states based on that latest special master ruling.
December 19, 2019
Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the new special master issued a ruling that again sides with Georgia. Finding that Georgia caused no harm to Florida and Georgia’s use of water is reasonable and equitable, the special master recommended that Florida’s case be dismissed.
June 27, 2018
In a 5-4 decision, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Florida and against the Special Master’s recommendation that the water wars case be dismissed. This is not a final decree apportioning water between Florida and Georgia, but a ruling that instructs the Special Master to go ahead and apportion water in a way that could remedy Florida’s harm. The Supreme Court will then review that apportionment recommendation to decide if it wants to issue any final decree. Though Florida won in this particular ruling, the Court can still dismiss the case, which would ultimately be a ruling in favor of Georgia.
April 25, 2018
We’re still waiting on the Supreme Court to issue an opinion in Florida v. Georgia. The Court has already released their opinion in Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado, another water-rights case that was argued on the same day as Florida v. Georgia (January 8, 2018). The Court traditionally issues opinions on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, though at the end of the term opinions may be issued on additional days. Many cases from the current sitting are still waiting on opinions so it should be a busy next few weeks.
January 15, 2018
Water Wars Update: When Georgia and Florida finally had the opportunity to argue their cases in front of the US Supreme Court, several justices appeared sympathetic to Florida. Meanwhile, in a brief on the matter, Atlanta asserted that the Supreme Court shouldn’t even attempt to help Florida because the benefits of the environment are often too vague to be valued. See article “Is the Supreme Court Capable of Valuing the Environment”
**February 14, 2017
Special Master Lancaster recommends to the US Supreme Court that Florida’s claim be dismissed. Based on the evidence presented to him, Lancaster believes that Florida failed to a show clear and convincing evidence that reducing Atlanta’s water consumption would remedy water-related issues in the Apalachicola Bay. However, Lancaster stated that his conclusion is based on the Supreme Court’s inability to dictate how the US Army Corps of Engineers manages water in the ACF Basin. Since the Corps is not a party to the Florida v. Georgia suit, the Supreme Court is unable to bind the Corps to any remedial action to help Florida. The US Supreme Court must still adopt the recommendation. More to come on this soon.
August 4, 2016
Georgia has now dedicated $21 million in legal fees this year to litigate. We should be spending this on reaching a bi-state or tri-state water use compact; something that will actually provide a working water use plan for the three states as opposed to what the US Supreme Court will provide.
June 7, 2016
This thing (may be) going to trial. The AJC reported that attorneys for Georgia and Florida have told the Supreme Court’s Special Master Ralph Lancaster, Jr. they are ready to take this argument to trial in the fall. This is a bad development that will result in a loss for everyone.
April 21, 2016
The disorganization in how to handle the disagreement between the three states was made apparent again today in an article from the AJC. US Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, has apparently inserted language into the current spending bill asking the US Department of Justice to investigate all federal water contract violation. This is similar to language that has previously been introduced in various federal bills by Senator Shelby.
The motivation is clear: Alabama is upset with how the US Army Corps of Engineers is interpretation federal statutes that instruct the Corps to manage water quantity in the ACF Basin and wants the Justice Department to intervene. In 2011 a Federal District Court ruled that the Corps could continue to allocate water in the Basin in such a manner as to provide Atlanta with adequate drinking water. Unsurprisingly, that decision did not sit well with Florida or Alabama.
Taking the disagreement to a spending bill in the US Congress completely undermines any effort to reach a three-state agreement on how to manage water in the Basin. It’s similar to the Georgia Assembly passing a resolution several sessions ago to agree to investigate how to annex portions of Tennessee so as to gain access to the Tennessee River. The representatives of each state, from the local to the federal level, appear to be on different pages; that’s not a desirable state of affairs when what we need is more cooperation.
Unfortunately it doesn’t appear the states have made any additional effort to get together. Florida and Georgia still have their water allocation case pending in the US Supreme Court and we continue to see each state attempting to make internal changes to address the problems. Those changes include more conservation efforts and land use controls, which clearly are necessary, but ultimately the states cannot solve this regional problem by only addressing issues within their own borders.
April 12, 2016
As reported by National Geographic, American Rivers named the ACF Basin the most endangered river system in the US. Perhaps unsurprising, outdated water management is cited as the biggest threat to the system.
The AJC reports that the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has decided that the Glades Reservoir in Hall County is no longer viable. The reservoir was seen as a friendly step taken by Georgia to provide more water for itself and reduce the amount it needs to divert from downstream users (aka Florida).