U.S. Supreme Court to Make Final Decision on Water War

Apalachicola Bay is located on the Florida Panhandle near the Big Bend. It is one of the country’s major estuaries and the home of Florida’s oyster industry. In recent years it has had its oyster population drastically decline in what some have called a budding ecological disaster.

In 2012, there was a little more than 3 million pounds of oyster meat harvested, the majority of it came from Apalachicola Bay. In 2013, the number of pounds dropped to a little more than 1 million. According to FWC as of May of 2014 only 126,142 pounds were harvested. Some of the problems can be traced to a 1989 recommendation by the United States Army Corps of Engineers that some water flowing through the Buford Dam, located on the Chattahoochee River in northern Georgia, should be used for the City of Atlanta’s water supply. This sparked a water war involving Alabama, Georgia and Florida that has been waged for over 25 years. Florida has claimed Georgia is hurting the oyster harvest by taking too much water from Lake Lanier, the federal reservoir that supplies water to the Atlanta area and feeds the Apalachicola River. The decrease in flow stops the necessary nutrients for oyster populations reaching the Bay. The lower flow also increases salinity in the bay bringing in new predators and oyster disease.

In 2009 a federal judge ruled that metro Atlanta had little right to take water from Lake Lanier, a federal reservoir on the Chattahoochee River. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling in 2011, finding that metro Atlanta could use the reservoir for water with restrictions. In 2013, the state of Florida filed a lawsuit against Georgia to the U.S. Supreme Court. They asked for equitable apportionment of fresh water to the river and bay.

The first special master, Ralph Lancaster, appointed in 2017 by the Supreme Court, found that Florida had not proven its case “by clear and convincing evidence” that imposing a cap on Georgia’s water use would benefit the Apalachicola River. The Supreme Court in a 5-4 majority said Lancaster had “applied too strict a standard” in rejecting Florida’s claim.

The Court appointed a second special master, Paul Kelly, who issued an 81 page report last December. The report said mismanagement by Florida contributed to the oyster industry’s collapse. Judge Kelly also said that Florida had not adequately shown that Georgia’s water use caused problems in the Franklin County bay and the Apalachicola River.

The report by special master Kelly will go to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will make a final decision in the case.

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