River Advocates Optimistic About Florida Vs. Georgia Water Dispute

Jan 12, 2018

After years of conflict, the U.S. Supreme Court is taking up the case over Florida and Georgia’s water disputes. Somewhat surprisingly, the justices seem sympathetic to Florida’s problems, and that has some of the state’s advocates feeling optimistic.

A shrimp boat heads out into the Apalachicola Bay.
Credit Jason Tereska / WFSU News

After taking the case all the way to the top, Florida’s environmentalists and river advocates are hoping years of debate might just pay off. The state is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to send more water south to the struggling Apalachicola Bay and its oysters. The booming Atlanta population and farmers in Georgia and Alabama also depend on the ACF river system, named for the Apalachicola, and the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, which flow into it.

Dan Tonsmeire is with the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an advocacy group. Tonsmeire sat in on the oral arguments on January 8th. 

“I think the fact that the justices were trying to find how they could get some relief to Florida is very encouraging,” Tonsmeire said.

"I think the fact that the justices were trying to find how they could get some relief to Florida is very encouraging."

He says Florida was making a common sense sort of case, asking the justices to equal out the playing field. But there are some issues. The management of the river system and its series of dams and reservoirs is up to the Army Corps of Engineers. The problem is the Corps isn’t technically part of the lawsuit. Gil Rogers is with the Southern Environmental Law Center, and he was also in the courtroom. 

“Yeah there was a lot of questioning about that,” Rogers said.

He says it’s not clear if the Court could make the Corps change its policies and give Florida more water.

“It’s a little hard to know what the Corps would actually do, but that would certainly be the hope is that they would rethink their operation of the system if the Supreme Court came down with an opinion like that,” Rogers said.

The Apalachicola - Chattahoochee - Flint river system.
Credit Wikipedia

A court-appointed special master advised the justices that this issue could prevent Florida from getting what it wants. And even if the Corps could change the flow levels, it’s not as easy as flipping a switch. That’s according to Steve Leitman, an environmental scientist and mediator who’s worked on water-sharing in the river basin for decades.

“There’s a minimum flow set at the Florida border. So that if you have more water flowing down the Flint, that just means they release less from the reservoirs and the Chattahoochee and you get the same flow during a drought," Leitman said. "So it’s much more complicated than just putting a consumption cap. You need to deal with the reservoir management.”

"It's a little hard to know what the Corps would actually do, but that would certainly be the hope is that they would rethink their operation of the system."

Still, Rogers, the attorney, says the fact the Court is exploring possible remedies for Florida is encouraging. But it’s still not clear how the justices might come down, and it could take months. He says they have a few options: cap Georgia’s water use, or…

“...they could just adopt the special master’s recommendation upon further reflection. They could ask the parties for some supplemental briefing. Or even ask the special master to do some more homework in terms of collecting evidence about different aspects of the case,” Rogers said.

A lot of the debate hinges on the collapsing Apalachicola oyster industry, once one of the nation’s most productive. But Tonsmeire, the river advocate, says the whole bay ecosystem will be affected by the court’s decision.

“It’s going to mean something to the blue crab, the shrimp, the offshore fisheries in the Eastern Gulf over the long-term because all of that is one big ecosystem. There’s a lot at stake here than just the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay,” Tonsmeire said.

Whatever the court decides, Rogers and Leitman hope stakeholders throughout the ACF basin can lower their hackles and strike a deal once the litigation is over. Florida has to work with its neighbors: the vast majority of the river system lies outside of the state.