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U.S. Supreme Court to hear Georgia water rights case

U.S. Supreme Court to hear Georgia-Florida water rights case

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday said it plans to hear Georgia’s water rights case with Florida this term, teeing up what could be final arguments in the state’s expensive legal fight that has consumed officials from the Chattahoochee River to Capitol Hill for years.

In a brief order issued Tuesday, the high court did not set a date for oral arguments but said it would hear them “in due course.” The court’s term will extend through June or July.

The announcement, long expected by Georgia attorneys, comes after the state won perhaps its biggest legal victory yet in the decades-long water feud.

That came in February, when a special master appointed by the Supreme Court urged the justices to reject Florida’s call for strict new water consumption limits.

Georgia officials have long argued the state’s water consumption was reasonable and warned limits could devastate the state’s economy, while Florida said new caps were crucial to preserve downstream water flow for power plants, the agriculture industry and fragile environmental ecosystems.

Florida has since called on the high court to spurn special master Ralph Lancaster’s recommendation that Florida had “failed to show that a consumption cap” was needed after five weeks of hearing testimony in the case.

There are high stakes in the Supreme Court’s decision. The nine justices could approve or reject Lancaster’s recommendation regarding the “equitable distribution” of water or direct him to re-examine the case. Congress could also weigh in — lawmakers from Georgia, Florida and neighboring Alabama have all tangled to have their say in recent years — and other lawsuits are possible.

Read more: A tipping point in the water war? 

Gov. Nathan Deal has shifted more than $30 million in the state budget so far to pay for this particular legal battle with Florida, and his administration signaled it was ready to spend more to win the fight.

“Protecting Georgians’ water interest is a top priority for Governor Deal,” spokeswoman Jen Talaber Ryan said. “To that end, the governor and our legal team plan to defend the special master’s ruling in the Supreme Court.”

Chris Carr, the state’s attorney general, said “we look forward to vigorously defending Georgia’s interests in the next step of this process.”

This particular legal fight between Georgia and Florida is just the latest skirmish in a decades-long water rights battle that also includes Alabama.

The fight involves water flowing from Lake Lanier through Alabama to Florida’s Apalachicola Bay. Georgia’s two neighbors have argued that it for decades has drawn more than its fair share from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, harming the local ecosystem and their states’ economic livelihoods.

Georgia counters that the state’s water use had little to do with the collapse of the Apalachicola oyster industry and that it has only withdrawn responsible amounts of water.

“Georgia consumes only a small fraction of water as compared to the total state-line flows into Florida,” the state argued in a post-trial brief. “In all years — including in drought years — Florida receives the overwhelming majority of water in the (river) Basin.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave Georgia a stamp of approval last year when it said metro Atlanta would get virtually all the water it needs from the Chattahoochee River and Lake Lanier through 2050.

The U.S. Supreme Court shocked Georgia officials in November 2014 by agreeing to hear the case. Lancaster concluded five weeks of trial in Maine in early December.

Alabama sat out of this particular battle but has written briefs in favor of Florida.

Deal has recently beefed up the state’s legal staff, tapped a water czar and quietly met with his counterparts in Alabama and Florida to potentially discuss a compromise as the courtroom battle escalates. But similar efforts to strike a deal in past years failed to gain any traction.

Congress has also sought to get involved. Lawmakers from Alabama and Florida have tried unsuccessfully to insert language into must-pass legislation that would force the Justice Department and Army Corps of Engineers to investigate Georgia’s water usage. Georgia lawmakers have beaten back every attempt in recent years, with a few close calls. 

This time around, though, Peach State politicos have sounded an unerringly optimistic note.

“This has been an issue since I got into politics in 1974,” U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said. “It’s like a tennis ball back and forth over the net. Georgia has won so many times before that on the legal issues and all the cogent facts, we ought to be able to put it to bed. And hopefully we will.”

Timeline: Georgia's water wars

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