In a unanimous decision April 1, the U.S. Supreme Court handed Georgia a victory over Florida in a seven-year battle over water in a river system that includes Lake Lanier. Justices ruled that Florida did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that the collapse of its oyster fisheries was caused by Georgia’s alleged overconsumption upstream. The decision also concluded that Florida did not provide conclusive evidence that Georgia overconsumption harmed river wildlife and plant life downstream.
The decision to dismiss the case, just less than six weeks after Feb. 22 oral arguments, came months before most lawsuit followers expected it. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, in her summary opinion, wrote that Florida failed to carry its heavy burden of proof that upstream water use caused Apalachicola Bay’s oyster collapse in 2012. She concurred with a Special Master’s findings that Florida lacked any evidence that any river species has suffered or will suffer serious injury from Georgia’s alleged overconsumption.
The opinion also recounted that Florida’s own documents and witnesses reveal that Florida allowed unprecedented levels of oyster harvesting in the years before the collapse and quoted one of Florida’s lead witnesses stating that Florida’s management practices “bent” Florida’s fisheries “until (they) broke.”
The opinion’s final paragraph urged Georgia to use water responsibly. “We emphasize that Georgia has an obligation to make reasonable use of Basin waters in order to help conserve that increasingly scarce resource.”
The decision may have ended this particular skirmish in a long-standing water rivalry between Florida, Georgia, and Alabama over rights to tap the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, but it likely will not end the decades-long war. The decision relied heavily on recommendations from two special masters, who previously denied Florida’s claims.