It’s been a back and forth thing over the years, but the way things are looking now, Georgia is gaining an upper hand in its long-running water battle with Florida and Alabama.
To be sure: The most recent decision in the case involves what amounts to a side issue just between Florida and Georgia. Alabama isn’t a direct participant, though its stake in the overall larger water battle is probably greater than Florida’s.
And the issue is a subtle one. And it may mean bringing in new players.
And it may mean, if you extend the logic, that the federal government could wind up a participant in more state/state water conflicts than generally has been the case up to now.
The case goes back a long way, and the dispute is a basic one in the realm of water rights: How much water an upstream water consumer gets to use before sending the rest of the water downstream. Georgia is upstream, the basic source of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River. Alabama and Florida are the downstream users who argue that Georgia has diverted too much water, mainly toward the Atlanta metro area. The dispute has gone on for a couple of decades, and has been the Supreme Court before; at present, the high court has appointed a special master to go over details, and send recommendations upward. History usually is that in cases like this, the master’s recommendations carry a lot of weight.
As the master commented, “Both States warn of dire consequences if the Court does not resolve this proceeding in their favor – Florida of an ecological and economic disaster in the Apalachicola Region; Georgia of a crippled city and arid farmland in Georgia.”
The lever in the Georgia-Florida side case is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has a number of water-related projects in the Georgia area.
Master Pierce Atwood noted that Georgia “argues that Florida’s asserted harms are imaginary, self-inflicted, or inflicted by the operations of the United States Army Corps of Engineers or changes in precipitation patterns (or some combination thereof ) but in any event cannot be traced to Georgia’s water use. Georgia also maintains that, without an order binding the Corps, Florida will not be assured any relief – assuming it has suffered any injury at all – by a decree entered in this proceeding because the Corps has the ability to impound water in various reservoirs that it maintains in the Basin.”
To this point, the players in the case have been the states, and not federal agencies. But the master bought some of the Georgia logic, and concluded this: “Because the Corps is not a party, no decree entered by this Court can mandate any change in the Corps’ operations in the Basin. Without the ability to bind the Corps, I am not persuaded that the Court can assure Florida the relief it seeks. I conclude that Florida has not proven by clear and convincing evidence that its injury can be redressed by an order equitably apportioning the waters of the Basin.”
Considering how widespread Army Corps (not to mention Bureau of Reclamation and other) project are around the country, it’s not hard to imagine, if the Supreme Court sustains the mater, the feds being dragged into a number of cases where they haven’t been a major player until now.
Wonder what Alabama thinks about that.