WASHINGTON – Just follow the money and you'll understand why the states of Georgia and Florida are going back to court to continue their 27-year battle over water rights.
“There are huge competing economic interests in this case, that’s for sure,” William Wade, an economist and president Energy and Water Economics, told the Florida Record.
Wade said that the water fight has been going on so long because the two states share the Chattahoochee River, which converges with Flint River at the two states’ borders and turns into the Apalachicola River on the Florida side.
Outside of the increased demand caused by the population explosion in Atlanta during the past 20 years, the rivers also supply a delicate balance for the oyster industry that is formed at Apalachicola Bay on the Gulf Coast.
“One of the difficulties has been in even determining the value of freshwater to the shellfish,” Wade, who has worked on water studies related to the issue for the state of Georgia, said. “The salinity has to be precise.”
He said the flip side of that equation is the huge amount of water that goes to Atlanta and other municipal water users.
“One of the issues is whether or not Georgia should be more involved in conservation efforts,” he said. “And the answer is probably, ‘yes.’”
That’s what makes the whole situation seemingly intractable, he said – trying to determine the values of a fluctuating resource among all of those competing interests and applying them to real-dollar terms that can be negotiated.
That’s where the courts come in, though mediation efforts are said to be continuing between the states’ elected officials.
Attorneys for the states earlier this month petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to reopen the case in November. The trial is expected to last approximately two months. One of Florida's ongoing requests is that that Georgia’s water-use levels be limited to 1992 levels.
The case continues an issue that was decided by a federal judge in 2009 – whether Lake Lanier could be considered a water supply for Atlanta and allow the state to tap more of it. The judge said it wasn’t and it couldn’t, but the decision was overturned in 2011.
Subsequent appeals were denied, though in 2014 the Supreme Court agreed to hear a Florida lawsuit asking it to cap the amount the state takes from its rivers.
The federal mediator in the case. Ralph Lancaster said he’s not sure taking the case to court will improve the outcome.
“When this matter is concluded – and I hope I live long enough to see it happen – one and probably both of the parties will be unhappy with the court’s order,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted Lancaster as saying during a February call with attorneys. “Both states will have spent millions and perhaps even billions of dollars to obtain a result which neither one wants.”
According to the newspaper, to win, Florida must prove that Georgia is to blame for its water woes and that the low flows are directly attributable to the damage done to the state’s oyster industry.