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Special Master Again Sides With Georgia In 'Water War' Over Apalachicola Bay

fishing boats
Jessica Palombo

Georgia officials are cheering and Florida environmentalists are feeling depressed. A special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court is recommending the body reject Florida’s request to cap Georgia’s water use in a long-running fight over the Apalachicola-Flint-Chattahochee River system. It’s the second time Florida has gotten an unfavorable outcome.

The ruling by the special master in the case acknowledges North Florida’s Apalachicola Bay has been harmed by low water flows upstream, but says the state didn’t prove it’s Georgia’s fault.

"I recommend denying Florida’s request for a decree because it has not proved the elements necessary to obtain relief," Judge Paul Kellywrote in his ruling. "Florida has pointed to harm in the oyster fishery collapse, but I do not find that Georgia caused that harm by clear and convincing evidence. 

The ruling recommends denying Florida’s request to revamp the way water in the three-state system is allocated. The special master says Georgia’s water use is reasonable, and that the evidence didn’t show the benefits of water reallocation to Florida outweighed potential harm to Georgia.

“It’s sorta like I felt when I read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," says former Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmiere when asked how he felt when he read the document.

"It was very disconcerting [that] the special master discounted the type of improvement and benefits to the river…as being zero or almost that.”

This is the second time the issue has gone before a special master. The first official in the case was sympathetic to the state’s cause but said Florida’s sued the wrong party—and should have sued the Army Core of Engineers which manages water distribution in the system.

Florida accuses Georgia of using too much water upstream—impacting the Apalachicola Bay and other potentially other eastern Gulf of Mexico fisheries.   Georgia says the bay's problems are the result of Florida's mismanagement and environmental changes. The ruling now goes back to the U.S. Supreme Court where Tonsmiere is still hoping for a better outcome.

“I think it’s very much a matter of where they place the importance of the ecosystem.”   

The case has gone on for six years and began after the Apalachicola Bay’s prized oyster industry collapsed in 2012 due to drought and over-fishing. The special master’s ruling came just weeks after the sides argued their case in a New Mexico courtroom.

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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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