Florida and Georgia Asking the Supreme Court to Draw a Line on Water

The Chattahoochee River outside Atlanta       Photo: Mike Gonzalez, WikiCC

Florida and Georgia faced off again in the Supreme Court on Monday, asking the Justices to settle their long-running dispute over water.  The problem is that there is not enough to go around in three rivers the emanate in Georgia but flow through Florida to the Gulf of Mexico.  Georgia needs water to grows nuts and cotton, while Florida needs water for its oyster industry. And then there’s the city of Atlanta, whose need for water has been growing and they are tapping into the same water increasingly.  Since Georgia is “upstream” it has been able to take what it needs, while Floridians have suffered all the losses so far. Environmental groups argued that the Justices should recognize ecological values and the harm to the environment resulting from Georgia’s thirst for water.

Why This Matters:  The states failed to reach a water compact more than a decade ago — now they have nowhere else to go but the Supreme Court, which has “original jurisdiction” over a dispute between two states. The Court has struggled with this atypical case — repeatedly pushing the dispute to “special masters” to do fact-finding that they hoped would resolve the matter.  However, thanks to climate change, they will need to get used to picking a winner in water shortage cases.  

Who Likes Oysters?

Most people who observed the oral arguments on Monday said that the Justices seemed to favor Georgia’s agricultural interests over Florida’s — oystermen were not able to show big economic losses — so the case may just turn on dollars and cents not what makes environmental sense.  If Georgia were to send more water downstream to Florida, Georgia’s agricultural users would suffer $100 million in losses, versus the roughly $6 million in losses from the collapsed oyster industry in that region of Florida.  And Florida’s argument that Georgians were wasting water seemed to fall on deaf ears because the increase in water for Florida that would create still would be insufficient to make the oyster beds viable again.  The logic was, why bother?

What About Ecosystem Services?

The Justices seemed to want to understand better how to value the ecosystem in Florida that has been starved of water. According to E&E News, Justice Alito wondered out loud, “What is at stake is a precious ecosystem. How do we take that into account?”  There seems to be little doubt that Georgia’s water use has skyrocketed, and that combined with droughts and climate change has dried up Florida’s Apalachicola Bay of inflows and led to the 2012 collapse of its oyster industry.  Our friends at SCOTUSblog explained that Florida is asking that the Supreme Court equitably apportion the water in these rivers to protect “both States’ right to reasonable use of the waters.”  Georgia argued that to be entitled to an “equitable” split of the water, Florida has to show that both it has suffered a serious injury due to Georgia’s water use, and also that the benefits of giving Florida its equitable share have to outweigh the costs.  None of these calculations even begin to take into account the many economic benefits that freshwater flowing into the Gulf of Mexico provides — to the tourism economy, to helping mitigate agricultural runoff, and to local fishing.

To Go Deeper: Read this NPR explanation of the thirty-year history of this water dispute.

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