By Jane Harrison

U.S. Supreme Court action during conference early this year prolonged the drawn-out legal battle between Florida and Georgia over water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River System. After receiving a special master’s recommendation to deny Florida’s plea to limit Georgia water consumption, justices initially ruled that states could send written exceptions through March 13. Then, upon Florida’s request for more time, unopposed by Georgia, the court extended the deadline to April 13. Next would be a round of counter arguments, with more replies due on or before June 12 and sur-replies due on or before July 13, 2020.

If the latest round follows the timeline that elapsed from the previous special master’s report to a court decision, justices’ final resolution won’t come until summer 2021. It took 15 months from the March 2017 acceptance of the first special master’s recommendations, which also denied Florida’s claims, until the court opinion came out in June 2018. In that 5-4 decision, justices gave Florida another chance to prove its case and later assigned a different special master to see it through.

Special Master Paul J. Kelly, Jr., ruled in Georgia’s favor in December 2019, stating that he believed evidence that Georgia’s water use is reasonable and downstream woes in Florida were caused by drought and mismanagement rather than Georgia’s consumption. The court received Kelly’s decision Dec. 11, 2019, considered it during its January conference, and set the slate for months of rebuttals and counterarguments, similar to the last go round.

Florida filed suit in Oct. 2013 after a 2012 drought and subsequent collapse of oyster fisheries in Apalachicola Bay. The state blamed Georgia for low flows on the Apalachicola River, which is fed by Georgia’s Flint and Chattahoochee rivers. The Flint nourishes Georgia farmland. The Chattahoochee and its largest reservoir, Lake Lanier, provide water for north Georgia and metro Atlanta.

Each state has spent at least $50 million in the legal battle, just one skirmish in a decades-long struggle over water between Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

Funding focused on propping up Apalachicola Bay

In the midst of a legal struggle it claims it must win to survive, Apalachicola Bay has gotten potential relief. Private and state entities are pumping almost $50 million into plans to help restore the bay’s oyster fisheries. The amount is similar to what the state has spent so far in litigation with Georgia since 2013.

In December, the National Fish and Wildlife Commission, in partnership with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conversation Commission and University of Florida, announced a $20 million grant to launch a six-year project surrounding oysters. According to a press release, the project will work on creating a sustainable harvest management plan and restoring and creating a sustainable oyster fishery focused in the Cedar Key area of the Suwannee River and Apalachicola Bay.

Another $22 million is flowing in through Ducks Unlimited, in partnership with Florida Fish and Wildlife, to restore wetland structure to MK Ranch, 6,400 acres of tidal marsh that filters tributaries to the Apalachicola River and nurseries for coastal fishes.

Additionally, last spring the region received $8 million from Triumph Gulf Coast, a nonprofit board that disperses funds for economic damages as a result of the BP oil spill. Researchers from Florida State University will use the funds to “study how to fix what’s ailing Apalachicola Bay,” according to the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper.