U.S. Supreme Court Names No Winner In Water Wars

Jun 27, 2018

The long awaited U.S. Supreme Court decision named no clear winner in the decades long dispute between Florida and Georgia over the Chattahoochee/Flint River Basin. 

In a decision handed down Wednesday, the court remanded the dispute back to the Special Master, or investigator, they appointed to get to the bottom of the water issues. 

In his report to the court in February, the Special Master found that it was very likely that upstream water use in Georgia was to blame for the near collapse of the Apalachicola Bay fishery in Florida. For their part, Florida proffered a solution of shifting water around the basin to secure more flow which might help fish and oysters in the bay.

The Special Master said Florida had not proven with certainty that such a shift was possible without the aid of the Army Corps of Engineers or that it would restore bay ecology. The Corps controls the dams up and down the watershed but was neither a party to the legal proceedings nor under the control of the Supreme Court. The Special Master recommended the court deny Florida's request for reapportionment. 

In a 5-4 decision, Justice Steven Breyer wrote that certainty is the wrong standard. Attorney Laurie Fowler, director of policy for the University of Georgia's River Basin Center, said what the court is after is some measure of probability that a reapportionment of flow could restore balance to Apalachicola Bay. 

"It isn't clear whether that extra water would actually protect the fishery," Fowler said. "But what the Supreme Court is now saying is we need to go back and look more closely at all that."

Fowler said it could be that the years of investigating by Florida and the Special Master may already have provided evidence sufficient to move the court to action. Or it could be there is more information to be gathered.

Either way, Fowler said it is almost certain Florida will get to argue for more water before the Supreme Court again.