U.S. Supreme Court

The tri-state “water wars” between Florida, Georgia and Alabama over water allocation from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin have dragged on for nearly three decades.

Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

A lawyer representing the state of Florida asked the U.S. Supreme Court Monday to order Georgia to use less water irrigating crops in order to restore Florida’s devastated oyster industry.

But Georgia’s lawyer told the justices the costs of a court-ordered cap on water consumption by farmers in Southwest Georgia would far outweigh the minimal benefits it would provide the Sunshine State’s oyster harvests.

“A 50% cut in irrigating would cost Georgia hundreds of millions of dollars to benefit Florida’s oyster industry by 1%,” Craig Primis said during hourlong opening arguments.

The tri-state “water wars” between Florida, Georgia and Alabama over water allocation from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin have dragged on for nearly three decades. But Florida’s lawsuit against Georgia heard on Monday dates back only to 2013, a year after the collapse of that state’s oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay.

Florida is seeking to cap Georgia’s water consumption to save an oyster industry that otherwise would be “irretrievably lost,” Gregory Garre, Florida’s lawyer, told the justices.

Georgia has countered that such a cap would bring growth in metro Atlanta grinding to a halt and devastate the state’s Southwest Georgia Farm Belt.

Florida blames the collapse of its oyster industry on historic low flows of water through the ACF system at its border with Georgia, which increased levels of salinity in Apalachicola Bay to harmful levels for its once-thriving oyster industry.

“One of the most unique estuaries in the Northern Hemisphere … essentially became a marine environment because of the increased salinity,” Garre said.

Garre confirmed what has been clear at least since a special master heard the dispute in late 2019: Florida is no longer focusing on the amount of water used in metro Atlanta to supply the region’s growing population. Essentially, Florida has conceded that Atlanta-area municipal water utilities have made such strides in water conservation that a case can’t be made in that part of the river basin.

Garre acknowledged in answer to a question Monday from Justice Amy Coney Barrett that Florida instead is targeting the amount of water uses for irrigation in Southwest Georgia. He suggested Georgia could fix the problem with steps that wouldn’t cost much, including halting illegal irrigation, eliminating over-watering, reducing farm-pond evaporation and doing a better job scheduling irrigation.

“Georgia’s unrestrained consumption is unreasonable,” Garre said. “Meaningful relief is available at little or no cost to Georgia.”

But Primis said the collapse of the Florida’s oyster industry was a “self-inflicted wound” caused by overharvesting. He pointed to data backing up overharvesting as the cause of the devastation.

“The [sand]bars that were heavily fished collapsed, and the ones that were not heavily fished … thrived,” he said.

While both lawyers were put on the spot with questions from the justices, as is usually the case before the Supreme Court, some justices appeared particularly skeptical of Florida’s arguments. Special Master Paul Kelly recommended dismissing the lawsuit after he heard from the two sides in 2019.

At one point, Justice Stephen Breyer supported Georgia’s argument that overfishing occurred.

“You did overharvest after the oil spill,” Breyer told Garre, referring to the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. “You said, ‘Get them now or never.’ ”

Breyer also expressed frustration that the legal dispute between the states has lasted so long. Monday’s oral arguments marked the second time the Supreme Court has heard the Florida v. Georgia case.

“Has anybody ever tried to work out that Florida would pay Georgia to solve the problem?” the justice asked.

A ruling by the high court is expected by the end of June.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Capitol Beat News Service.