Florida and Georgia await special master's decision regarding water rights to the Chatahoochee River

By Carrie Bradon | Jul 10, 2018

TALLAHASSEE – Following a 30-year dispute between the states of Florida and Georgia over whether or not Georgia should have to cap its consumption of water from the Chattahoochee River, Florida is getting another chance at reclaiming its rights to the water.

TALLAHASSEE – Following a 30-year dispute between the states of Florida and Georgia over whether or not Georgia should have to cap its consumption of water from the Chattahoochee River, Florida is getting another chance at reclaiming its rights to the water.

While the battle is far from over, the U.S. Supreme Court did rule in favor of giving Florida another opportunity to prove that Georgia needed to cap its water use for the good of the Panhandle oyster industry.

The dispute, which has been underway since 1990, began when Alabama filed suit against Georgia and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers following the building of the Buford Dam on the Chattahoochee River. 

While the intentions were originally to provide clean energy sourced by hydroelectric power, neither Florida nor Georgia could have been fully prepared for the population growth that Georgia would undergo in that decade, nor the impact that it would have on one of the most important industries in the state of Florida.

Peter M. Vujin, a Miami-based attorney, explained the consequences that the metropolitan city of Atlanta had on the conflict, as well as the usage of water.

"Metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia, experienced enormous population growth since the 1990s; in 1990 the population was almost three million people, and today it is nearly six million people," Vujin told the Florida Record. "In order to provide water to such a large population, the state of Georgia started taking more and more fresh water from the Chattahoochee River, thereby disabling downstream Florida from receiving fresh water that is crucial for oysters as it is their natural habitat."

This depletion of water led to severe consequences to Florida's oyster population, which injured not only the oyster industry but also aquaculture as a whole.

"Florida's water became too salty for oysters to survive and led to near complete destruction of the oysters' natural habitat," Vujin said. "Needless to say, this had a very deleterious effect on the oyster industry in Florida and agriculture, including aquaculture, is Florida's No. 2 business after tourism."

When Florida finally filed the case, it was able to directly sue Georgia thanks to original Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of the United States derived from Article III, Section 2, which allows a number of states the right to sue one another directly, thus saving the many years that it would take to go through lower courts. 

Ashley Cook, press secretary for Gov. Rick Scott, sent the Florida Record the governor's statement on the progress of the ruling. 

"The case will return to the special master who was appointed by the court to oversee the suit," Cook said. 

Scott called the ruling a "huge win for the entire state of Florida."

"As governor, protecting the families whose livelihoods rely on the Apalachicola Bay has been a top priority," Scott said in the release. "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."

Ralph I. Lancaster, an attorney who has been appointed Supreme Court to the position of special master on four different occasions, will hear the case. Lancaster is the only person to have been appointed as special master this many times before.

"The Supreme Court remanded for a re-hearing to the special master due to the legal precept of 'equitable apportionment.' This precept means that both Florida and Georgia have an equal right to the reasonable use of the waters," Vujin said. "This is a monumental victory for the state of Florida and for the environment since Florida must simply show, under a rather easy-to-prove standard, that a final decree may be possible to proceed further with the case - not to actually prove the case at chief, just the possibility that the case in chief is 'likely' to be proven."

Although the outcome of Lancaster's decision is yet to be made, there is hope for Florida and the oyster industry. Both states have spent more than $40 million on the legal battle so far.

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Florida Department of Environmental Protection Franklin County Governor Rick Scott Orange County University of Florida IFAS Extension U.S. Supreme Court

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