Associated Press Writer
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida charged ahead Tuesday with a lawsuit against the state of Georgia that accuses its northern neighbor of consuming too much fresh water from a river system that serves three Southeastern states.
The legal action filed directly with the U.S. Supreme Court is an escalation in a legal dispute lasting more than two decades.
The lawsuit is not a surprise since Gov. Rick Scott announced in August that the state was preparing one.
But the legal measure asks the high court to take some dramatic steps, including capping Georgia’s overall water use at levels existing in 1992. Florida also wants a special master to enter a decree that would “equitably” divide the waters in the basin of the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint rivers.
“The situation is dire and the need for relief immediate,” states Florida’s lawsuit, which maintains Georgia is on pace to double its current consumption levels by 2040.
Scott decided to push ahead with the lawsuit following the near-collapse of the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay and after federal officials declared a fishery disaster for oystermen on the Gulf Coast. Oysters need a mix of fresh and salt water in order to thrive.
“Georgia has refused to fairly share the waters that flow between our two states, so to stop Georgia’s unmitigated consumption of water we have brought the matter before the U.S. Supreme Court,” Scott said in a statement.
“Generations of Florida families have relied upon these waters for their livelihood, but now risk losing their way of life if Georgia’s actions are not stopped,” Scott added.
Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, blasted the lawsuit as “political theatre and nothing more.”
“The only ‘unmitigated consumption’ going on around here is Florida’s waste of our tax dollars on a frivolous lawsuit,” Robinson said. “Florida is receiving historically high water flows at the state line this year, but it needs a bogeyman to blame for its poor management of Apalachicola Bay.”
Robinson said Georgia would defend its water rights “vigorously” before the court.
Robinson also repeated Deal’s assertion that Georgia offered a framework to end the dispute more than a year ago. Citing a previous court order, Florida officials have refused to release any details from negotiations between the states.
The long-running dispute hinges over withdrawals from Lake Lanier, a federal reservoir on the Chattahoochee River that provides water to metro Atlanta.
The Chattahoochee and Flint rivers merge to form the Apalachicola River, which flows to the Gulf of Mexico. In 2009, a federal judge ruled that metro Atlanta had little right to take water from Lake Lanier. He then ordered that metro Atlanta’s water withdrawals would be drastically restricted unless the three states reached a settlement.
A three-judge panel from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling in 2011, finding that metro Atlanta could use the reservoir for water with restrictions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently studying how much water the north Georgia region can take from the system. But corps officials have already acknowledged that it will be years before that study is complete.
Water officials in Atlanta have disputed that the metro area’s consumption is harming the oyster fishery and say recent problems have more to do with drought.
But in its court filing, Florida contends that long-term climate data have not shown significant decreases in precipitation and that a lack of rain cannot be blamed for the decreases of fresh water in the river system.
Florida points out in its court filing that the U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to weigh in on previous interstate disputes, including battles over water use between states.
“This court’s precedent makes clear Georgia may not store and consume the waters of the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers in unlimited quantity heedless of the impact on the Apalachicola region,” the lawsuit says.