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Tri-state water dispute deepens

For nearly 30 years, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida have been battling over the future allocation of water in two major river basins that cross their borders (the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa and the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basins). The dispute has involved several local, state and federal agencies, as well as numerous courts and mediators, and its outcome is one of the most important environmental issues facing the region today. The tri-state water war between Georgia, Florida and Alabama over water usage just got longer. On June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court remanded a lawsuit Florida filed against Georgia in 2013 back to a court-appointed special master who heard the case last year and made recommendations that favored Georgia. In a 5-4 ruling, the justices declared Special Master Ralph I. Lancaster Jr. was ‘too strict’ in the burden of proof he set for Florida to demonstrate that Georgia’s water withdrawals from the Chattahoochee River Basin are harming Florida’s environmentally fragile oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay. The decision represented a clear victory for Florida as it keeps the case alive. Katherine Zitsch, manager of the National Resources group at the Atlanta Regional Commission, expressed disappointment with the decision to remand the case back to the special master. ’We are studying the court’s opinion to understand its full implications,’ she said. ‘We are confident that metro Atlanta’s water use is reasonable, and we look forward to a time in which we can move beyond litigation to collaborate with everyone in the river basin.’ Each of the three states has its own concerns about the proper allocation of water: As the upstream user, Georgia wants to have enough water to continue growing, particularly in booming metro Atlanta, in addition to supplying cities such as Columbus and heavy agricultural usage in the state’s southwest corner. The problem is that Atlanta is not in a water-rich area of the state, and it sprawls across the tops of multiple river systems that drain into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.  Alabama is concerned that Atlanta’s ever-increasing thirst for water will severely limit its own use of water for power generation, municipal supply, fisheries and other current and future uses. Florida wants enough freshwater to reach the Apalachicola Bay to sustain its multi-million dollar shellfish industry, which is under severe ecological stress resulting from low river flows and saltwater intrusion. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal also expressed confidence that Georgia will not be forced to impose ‘draconian caps’ on the Peach State’s consumption of water from the Chattahoochee River system, as sought by Florida. He pointed to the General Assembly’s passage of a water conservation law in 2010 as proof of Georgia’s good faith efforts to use water wisely. ’I look forward to continuing to defend our position in this case,’ Deal said. ‘Georgia remains committed to the conservative efforts that make us amicable stewards of water resources.’ Chris Clark, president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, criticized the ruling for not giving the state enough credit for those water conservation efforts. ’The decision failed to account for the proactive steps Georgia has taken over many years in being a responsible steward of its water resources,’ he said. Lawyers representing Georgia argued Florida’s bid to have the Supreme Court cap Georgia’s water consumption from the Chattahoochee basin would bring growth in metro Atlanta to a halt and devastate the state’s agriculture industry. Lancaster sided with Georgia last year, finding that Florida failed to prove a consumption cap would give Florida the relief it sought, mainly because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not a party to the case. But the Supreme Court said Florida made a ‘sufficient showing’ that limiting Georgia’s water consumption would directly benefit Apalachicola Bay. It’s unclear whether or how the ruling could affect other pending lawsuits in the tri-state dispute. Several ongoing cases also include as parties the state of Alabama and the Corps. ’Georgia Farm Bureau had hoped that the Supreme Court would accept the recommendation to reject Florida’s request to have limits placed on Georgia’s use of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers. This long-standing dispute deserves a resolution,’ said Georgia Farm Bureau president Gerald Long. ‘It is our hope that the continued litigation will serve to demonstrate that Georgia’s farmers practice responsible water use and continue to pursue efficient application of this most valuable of our natural resources.’

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