By Dennis Pillion
TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Florida Governor Rick Scott announced Monday that the U.S. Supreme Court would take up the case of Florida v. Georgia, a lawsuit filed over Georgia’s use of fresh water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basins, which has been as issue of contention for decades in Florida and Alabama.
Fishing boats dock along Water Street in Apalachicola, Fla. (Scott Walker)
The complaint brought by Florida alleges that Georgia’s increasing use of fresh water decreased flows into the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay, which in 2012 produced 90 percent of Florida’s oyster harvest and 10 percent of the nation’s oysters.
Over the last two years, the Apalachicola oyster harvest has plummeted to a fraction of 2012 levels, and the suit alleges that the lack of freshwater flowing down the Apalachicola River is the reason. Oysters need a specific mix of salt and fresh water to survive, and Florida contends the lack of fresh water has made the bay too salty.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared a fishery disaster for Apalachicola oysters in 2013, and when harvests did not improve, Florida wildlife officials said in September they will “very likely” have to consider shutting down the oyster harvest completely for stocks to recover.
In a news release, Scott called the court’s decision “huge news and a major victory for Florida,” and “the first of many important victories for the families and businesses of Apalachicola.”
Georgia contends that the state has not unfairly used its freshwater resources, and pledged to fight for its water rights, arguing conservation measures have reduced metro Atlanta’s water consumption from 2010 levels, and that the problems in Apalachicola Bay are not the result of decreased water flows.
A spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal said last year that Florida “needs a bogeyman to blame for its poor management of Apalachicola Bay.”
In September, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli recommended that the Supreme Court delay taking up the case until after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes revisions to its Master Water Control Manual.
“Florida has pleaded an interstate water dispute of sufficient importance to warrant this court’s exercise of its original jurisdiction, and no other judicial forum is suitable for resolving the overall controversy,” Verrilli said. “Practical considerations, however, weigh against the court’s resolution of Florida’s claims before the Corps has completed its process of updating the Master Manual for the federal projects in the ACF basin.”
According to Verrilli’s report, the draft of that document is expected in September 2015, with approval and implementation in 2017.
“For 20 years, Florida has tried to work with Georgia, and families have continued to see their fisheries suffer from the lack of water,” Scott said in the news release. “The Supreme Court takes up so few cases, and their willingness to hear Florida’s demonstrates the merits of our case before the court.
“We are fighting for the future of this region, and we won’t quit until these resources are restored.”