Florida’s attorneys argued that Georgia’s upstream water use during a severe drought led to the collapse of Apalachicola Bay’s iconic oyster industry beginning in 2012. That’s because the mollusks rely on a delicate balance of freshwater and saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico to survive.
After initially targeting water usage in metro Atlanta, Florida zeroed in on farmers in southwest Georgia as the main culprit. They said farmers near the Flint River took out too much water for irrigation and that limiting their water use, especially during droughts, would help safeguard the Bay and its unique ecology.
Georgia countered that its water use has been reasonable and that other factors, including climate changes and Florida’s overharvesting following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, led to the oyster population’s decline. State lawyers argued that any cap on Georgia’s usage of water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin would be “draconian,” costing hundreds of millions of dollars to implement. They also said that such a measure would be of little benefit to Florida because of the complicated way the Army Corps of Engineers manages upstream dams.
The Supreme Court ultimately sided with Georgia and a court-appointed expert judge, who in December 2019 recommended that justices dismiss the case. Barrett wrote that Florida “allowed unprecedented levels of oyster harvesting” in the years leading up to 2012 while it “failed to adequately reshell its oyster bars.”
“Considering the record as a whole, Florida has not shown that it is ‘highly probable’ that Georgia’s alleged overconsumption played more than a trivial role in the collapse of Florida’s oyster fisheries,” the opinion stated.
Georgia spent nearly $50 million in taxpayer money defending itself. Florida spent even more.
Attorney General Chris Carr said the ruling “affirmed what we have long known to be true: Georgia’s water use has been fair and reasonable.”
“We will continue to be good stewards of our water resources, and we are proud to have obtained a positive resolution to this years-long dispute on behalf of all Georgians,” the Republican said.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Attorney General’s office said leaders are reviewing the court’s opinion and will consult with the state Department of Environmental Protection “to discuss if any further action is warranted.”
“It’s a disappointing result, but we remain committed to supporting DEP in protecting Apalachicola Bay and the jobs that this important resource supports,” the spokeswoman said.
Florida officials last summer banned oyster harvesting in the Apalachicola Bay for five years, part of a $20 million restoration plan that includes reshelling work.
Thursday’s decision is unlikely to bring an end to the Southeastern water wars, which have dragged on for three decades. There are several ongoing water cases involving rivers in Georgia, Florida and Alabama that are winding their way through lower courts. Alabama sat out of the Supreme Court case but was backing Florida, since both sit downstream from Georgia.
In the final paragraph of their ruling, justices emphasized that “Georgia has an obligation to make reasonable use of Basin waters” to help conserve the increasingly scarce resource.