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Special Master Rules Against Florida, Apalachicola In 'Water War' Fight With Georgia

Boats rest on a dock in the Apalachicola Bay
Jason Tereska

A special master is recommending the U.S. Supreme Court rule against Florida in a decades-long fight over water use. The move is a big blow to the Big Bend’s Apalachicola Bay, which depends on water from the system.

The ruling says Florida couldn’t prove whether water use in Georgia is the cause of the problems or if the Apalachicola Bay’s woes are due to changes in rainfall or the policies of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It also says since the Corps is not a named party in the lawsuit, the court can’t force changes to the organization's policies.  

"Without the ability to bind the Corps, I am not persuaded that the Court can assure Florida the relief it seeks," writes Special Master Ralph Lancaster, Jr. "I conclude that Florida has not proven by clear and convincing evidence that its injury can be redressed by an order equitably apportioning the waters of the Basin."

Florida had sued Georgia stating that state's water use upstream was hurting the Apalachicola Bay's seafood-dependent economy. Georgia contested that, saying the Bay's problems were a result of Florida's mismanagement and environmental changes.

Apalachicola River Keeper Dan Tonsmiere says he’s disappointed but isn’t giving up.

“I certainly think if the Corps goes forward with its alternative recommendation, there should be some serious focus on checking that because of the inequity of their management and lack of consideration of the needs of those in the basin," he says.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is updating its regional management plan and is increasing the amount of water Georgia can withhold upstream from the system. The plan is up for a final review and the comment period closed at the end of January. Tonsmiere hopes the ruling will encourage another review of the Corps' plans.

“I think there’s a lot of reason for the Corps to go back to the drawing board and I hope it’s not through litigation because we see the amount of money and time spent on this litigation," he says.

Florida and Georgia have been battling over water use in the Apalachicola-Flint-Chattahoochee River system for more than 30 years. It’s been described as the Water Wars.  Governor Rick Scott's office says it's reviewing the order.

*Editor's Note: This story has been updated with additional information and quotes from the Special Master's ruling.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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