HotSpots H2O: Florida-Georgia Water Dispute Returns to Supreme Court

Apalachicola, Florida. © Nolan WIlliamson

The long-running dispute between Florida and Georgia over water resources reached the U.S. Supreme Court last week. The court will decide whether Georgia must cap its water use from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin and allow more water to flow downstream to Florida. 

The dispute began in the 1990s and has been entangled ever since by contentious negotiations and numerous court dates. The ACF basin, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico, is a hard-working watershed. It provides water for the city of Atlanta, farmers in Georgia, and oyster growers in Florida. Florida claims that Georgia is using more water than is necessary, depleting water downstream and subsequently destroying the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay. Conversely, Georgia says a cap on the water supply from the basin will harm the Atlanta metro area and farmers who depend on the resource. It argues that oyster declines are a result of Florida’s mismanagement.

This is the second time that the Supreme Court has heard the case. Florida filed its complaint in 2013. After a lengthy trial, the court-appointed special master rejected Florida’s argument in 2018 due to lack of evidence, but the Supreme Court found that the rejection was too harsh and gave Florida another chance in court. A decision is expected in June.

The Apalachicola Bay is a large part of Florida’s aquaculture, formerly producing 90 percent of the state’s oysters. Yet in recent years the industry has hit a rough patch. Since the collapse of oyster beds in 2012, harvests have decreased by millions of pounds. Last year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission suspended all wild oyster harvesting in the bay until 2025 so that the population can recover. Florida believes that the oyster collapse is due to Georgia’s overuse of water, but Georgia claims that blame should be placed on drought and Florida’s negligence. 

Georgia is already favored to come out on top, Robert Abrams, a water law scholar at Florida A&M University, told Bloomberg Law. States that petition for reduced water use from another state have a high standard to meet. Florida must clearly indicate serious harm now and in the future, which may be unlikely. Furthermore, a Florida win could be a gateway for more downstream states to file complaints in the future. There may also be some futility to the fight due to climate change, Ryan Rowberry at Georgia State University told Bloomberg. A usage cap awarded to Florida might not make sense in a decade. 

In the coming years, climate change will be at the forefront of issues plaguing states such as Florida and Georgia. Drought and heat waves will be more frequent, and stronger hurricanes, torrential downpours, and rising seas will flood the states. Current water issues will change with the climate, and both states — farmers especially — have the potential to lose a lot.

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