Georgia-Florida water wars case heard by U.S. Supreme Court

    A witness at a U.S. Supreme Court hearing into a dispute over river water testified that Georgia's use of irrigation contributed to less than 10% of the damage to Florida' oyster production. Large irrigation equipment sits idle on a farm not far from Lake Seminole in south Georgia, where water flows in from the Flint River before flowing into the Apalachicola River in Florida. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

    WASHINGTON—U.S. Supreme Court justices on Monday heard oral arguments in a long-running fight pitting Georgia farmers against Florida oystermen over water rights.

    The case, Florida v. Georgia, stems from a 2013 lawsuit filed by the state of Florida that argued Georgia was using too much water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, which resulted in damage to oystermen in the Sunshine State.

    Georgia argues that a limit to its water use would damage the state’s more than $14 billion agricultural economy and harm the Atlanta metropolitan area.

    The justices didn’t indicate how they would rule, and appeared conflicted on the evidence provided by both sides.

    Chief Justice John Roberts said it would be difficult to determine what actions were responsible for the oyster industry’s collapse, comparing it to figuring out the murder in the Agatha Christie mystery novel “Murder on the Orient Express.”

    “Mr. Garre, how should we analyze the case if we think based on the record that Georgia contributed to the collapse of the oyster harvest but not enough to cause that on its own, that the situation is like that on ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ a lot of things took a stab at the fishery: drought, overharvesting, Florida regulatory policies, but also lower salinity that was caused by Georgia’s use of the water,” Roberts said. “But you can’t say that any one of those things is responsible for—for killing the—the fishery.”

    Gregory Garre, the attorney representing Florida, asked for a limit to Georgia’s use of a water basin, arguing that if relief was not granted, “these circumstances not only would be a death sentence for Apalachicola but would extinguish Florida’s equal right to the reasonable use of the waters at issue.”

    If Florida is successful, then restrictions could be placed on Georgia farmers for water use.

    Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned how Garre could suggest that Georgia’s use of water resulted in the oyster industry collapsing in Florida. She pointed to one of the expert witnesses who testified that Georgia’s use of irrigation contributed to less than 10% of the damage to Florida.

    Florida’s 2013 lawsuit argued that Apalachicola’s oysters account for 90% of the state’s harvest and about 10% nationwide.

    The attorney representing Georgia, Craig Primis, said that Florida failed to show that Georgia caused the industry’s collapse by using too much water for its crops and instead blamed the state.

    “Florida allowed oyster fishing at unprecedented levels in the years preceding the collapse,” he said.

    Garre said that Florida has tried to replenish its oysters for years, but that the problem stems from a lack of water flow, not from overfishing.

    “One thing is certain, without a decree, Georgia will continue to consume more and more and the Apalachicola will be irreversibly lost,” he said. “The solution here can’t be to do nothing to stop this.”

    This is the second time the Supreme Court is hearing this case.

    In 2018, the Supreme Court voted 5-4, giving Florida another chance to argue its case after the justices found the special master Ralph Lancaster who was appointed “applied too strict a standard in concluding that Florida failed to meet its initial burden.”

    Special master Paul Kelly Jr. was appointed next and in his opinion he sided with Georgia, finding that the state’s water use was reasonable, and said that Florida’s oyster problem stemmed from mismanagement and droughts

    A ruling on the case is expected later this spring.