by Lloyd Dunkelburger, The News Service of Florida
With the U.S. Supreme Court expected later this week to review a recommendation that would deny Florida relief in its decades-old water dispute with Georgia, Attorney General Pam Bondi said Tuesday the case is not over yet.
“I think we still have a very good chance of prevailing in this lawsuit,” Bondi said.
The nation’s highest court is scheduled to hold a closed-door conference Friday and review a report from a court-appointed special master who last month recommended that Florida be denied relief in its claim that Georgia’s overconsumption of water was damaging the ecology and economy of Apalachicola Bay in Franklin County.
Ralph Lancaster, a Maine lawyer who was the special master, said he could not reach an equitable water-use settlement between Florida and Georgia without the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was not a party to the lawsuit but controls water flow in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system through a series of dams and reservoirs. That system runs from North Georgia south to Apalachicola Bay.
Lancaster has recommended that the Supreme Court “conclude that Florida has not proven by clear and convincing evidence that a decree imposing a cap on Georgia’s consumptive water use would result in additional streamflow in Florida at a time that would provide a material benefit to Florida.”
Lancaster’s rejection of Florida’s legal arguments has heightened the scrutiny of legal fees the state has paid in the case.
Latham & Watkins, the lead firm with Supreme Court expertise, has billed Florida for about $36 million since July 2015, according to records collected by the Florida House, which is reviewing the fees.
The state has contested $4.6 million of those fees and has not paid October and November invoices, the records showed.
Bondi said the Latham firm was selected in consultation with Gov. Rick Scott’s office, the Department of Environmental Protection and her solicitor general’s office.
She said the firm has done “a great job,” while adding, “I was very strong when I spoke with the Latham lawyers (in the last two weeks) about spending more money on it, too.”
Bondi said it was necessary to hire a firm with special expertise to handle the complex litigation, which involves a lawsuit filed in 2013 but also more than two decades of “water wars” between the two states over the issue.
“Water is everything to our state. You know how this is impacting the Panhandle,” Bondi said. “It has gone on for way too long. Is that a huge amount in attorney fees? Absolutely. Is it very specialized? Absolutely. Hopefully it will wrap up very soon.”
Asked why she believed the state could prevail despite Lancaster’s recommendation, Bondi declined to elaborate other than saying, “we have some ideas.”
“Let me let the lawyers on the case do their job with my (solicitor general’s) office,” she said.
But Bondi also emphasized the legal fight with Georgia, despite the cost, was necessary because of what was at stake.
“To protect our state and our water rights, we’ve got to do that,” Bondi said. “And I hope we do still have a chance at prevailing. After speaking with them (the Latham firm), I believe we do. If we don’t, we know again, after 20 years, we have done everything we can possibly do.”