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Supreme Court: Florida Loses Water War With Georgia

Florida blames Georgia’s overconsumption of water for the decimation of the state’s oyster industry.
Florida blames Georgia’s overconsumption of water for the decimation of the state’s oyster industry.

The U.S. Supreme Court has dismissed Florida’s lawsuit against Georgia over water use in the Apalachicola-Flint-Chattahoochee River Basin.

Florida claimed Georgia’s agricultural water use in the southern part of that state contributed to low water which harmed the Apalachicola Bay’s oyster fishery and river basin. But the court found Florida didn’t present enough “clear and convincing” evidence to prove its case.

In its ruling, the court said there were other factors at play around 2012 when Florida declared a fishery disaster in the Apalachicola Bay. It specifically cited drought and oyster overharvesting following the 2010 BP oil spill as factors to the bay’s decline. Justices also noted it wasn’t clear that increasing water flow would help the bay.

“Florida’s own documents and witnesses reveal that Florida allowed unprecedented levels of oyster harvesting in the years leading to the collapse. And the record points to other potentially relevant factors, including actions of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, multiyear droughts, and changing rainfall patterns. The precise causes of the Bay’s oyster collapse remain a subject of scientific debate, but the record evidence establishes at most that increased salinity and predation contributed to the collapse of Florida’s fisheries, not that Georgia’s overconsumption caused the increased salinity and predation. Florida fails to establish that Georgia’s overconsumption was a substantial factor contributing to its injury, much less the sole cause,” the ruling states.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried says she's disappointed with the ruling.

“We have significant damage that is happening to our oysters and to our gulf. Not allowing Georgia to take responsibility is a big disappointment for our state," Fried said.

"The waters of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee—Flint...are part of a connected basin. The Apalachicola River and floodplain are hurting. It's an ecosystem in decline. And of course, the people whose livelihoods are connected to the river and bay have also been hurting," said Apalachicola Riverkeeper Georgia Ackerman. "So we were all hopeful that the justices could provide some legal way that this water could be shared equitably."

There are other lawsuits making its way through the courts. One is aimed at the U.S. Army Corps’ management of a dam that borders the Florida-Georgia line. That lawsuit is asking the corps to release more freshwater downstream for the bay.

Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio has also weighed in on the ruling, calling it "misguided."

“The U.S. Supreme Court’s misguided decision to allow Georgia’s gratuitous overconsumption of water from the Apalachicola Chattahoochee Flint (ACF) River Basin will allow further harm to northwest Florida’s environment and economy without consequence,” Rubio said. “Hardworking families in northwest Florida have depended on this treasured natural resource for generations, and they deserve a brighter economic future that can only be secured with sufficient downstream freshwater flows to Apalachicola Bay. I will continue to fight for a long-term solution to the deteriorating conditions of Apalachicola Bay and the entire ACF River Basin.”

Updated: April 1, 2021 at 3:18 PM EDT
Updated to income reaction from Florida Agriculture Nikki Fried and Apalachicola Riverkeeper, Georgia Ackerman.
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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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