WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court Wednesday handed Florida a victory in its decades-long fight with Georgia over water rights, ruling a court-appointed special master was "too strict" in determining that no remedy in the court's power would boost water flow into the Apalachicola River and help the region's beleaguered oyster industry.
The 5-4 decision remands the case back to Special Master Ralph Lancaster Jr., who sided with Georgia in a decision issued last year which Florida appealed to the nation's highest court.
In his opinion, the Maine lawyer found that Florida had suffered harm from the decreased water flow but had not proven that such a consumption cap would provide the relief it sought, mainly because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency in charge of federal water projects, is not a party to the lawsuit.
But the justices said Florida made a "sufficient showing" to both the special master and the high court itself that capping consumption by Georgia would provide a direct benefit to Apalachicola Bay.
"In addition, the United States has made clear that the Corps will cooperate in helping to implement any determinations and obligations the Court sets forth in a final decree in this case," the opinion, written for the majority by Justice Stephen Breyer states. "While the Corps must take account of a variety of circumstances and statutory obligations when it allocates water, it cannot now be said that an effort to shape a decree here will prove 'a vain thing'."
Both sides made their arguments before the nation's highest court in January. It was the last opinion the court issued of the 63 cases the justices heard in this just-concluded term.
The case pits Georgia's growing thirst for water to fuel metro Atlanta's growth and its multi-billion-dollar agriculture industry in the state's southwestern region against Florida's need for fresh water to preserve the fragile ecology of the Apalachicola Bay that was once produced 10% of the nation's oysters.
Under congressional direction, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the first of five dams in the 1950s that diverted water away from its traditional path downstream to Florida's panhandle in order to accommodate Georgia.
The lack of water began taking a heavy toll about a decade ago when the bay supported several hundred oyster boats harvesting around 20 bags per day. Today, about a dozen boats patrol the bay, collecting about two bags of oysters daily, according to Dan Tonsmeire, the longtime Apalachicola Riverkeeper who retired earlier this year.
"The Apalachicola region has suffered serious harm," Gregory G. Garre, a lawyer representing Florida told the justices in January. "Not only have its oysters been decimated but really a way of life."
One of the central questions confronting the court is whether an effective remedy, such as a cap on the amount of water Georgia consumes from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, could even be concocted.