FROM THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
By MARGIE MENZEL
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, June 22, 2015………. A special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court to preside over Florida’s long-running water dispute with Georgia has denied a bid to have the case dismissed.
Special master Ralph Lancaster ruled Friday that the federal government does not have to be a party to the case, as Georgia argued in seeking dismissal, and that the lawsuit filed by Florida in 2013 may go forward.
“Balancing the relevant factors, I agree with Florida and the United States that this original jurisdiction action can proceed in equity and good conscience,” Lancaster wrote in a 27-page ruling, first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Florida has asked the Supreme Court for a cap on Georgia’s use of the waters of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, which the two states share with Alabama.
Florida has long contended that Georgia takes too much water from the Chattahoochee River to meet Atlanta’s growing demand. It argues that Northwest Florida’s seafood industry has suffered as a result of low freshwater flows downstream to the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay.
In the middle of the fight is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the flows and has relied on a 2011 ruling from a federal appeals court that said Georgia has a legal right to water from Lake Lanier in the northern part of the river system. In its motion to dismiss, Georgia contended that the federal government must be a party to the case because the Corps of Engineers controls five dams on the Chattahoochee River that determine the freshwater flows downstream to the Apalachicola River Basin.
But Lancaster noted that Florida had not asked to control the level of the freshwater flows, which would have required the Corps to be a party to the lawsuit.
“It is Georgia that carries the burden to prove that any decree providing for a cap on Georgia’s consumption would be ineffective absent a decree binding the Corps,” he wrote.
Lancaster added that Florida had offered support for its petition to cap Georgia’s water usage.
“While a minimum flow decree cannot be ruled out conclusively at this stage of the proceedings, a decree entering a cap on Georgia’s consumption may be the most likely outcome in the event Florida prevails on its merits,” he wrote.
The special master also found that Alabama need not be a litigant in the case before the high court.
Even as the legal moves unfold, Lancaster has urged the states to search other avenues for a solution. Two weeks ago, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal came to Tallahassee for a closed meeting with Gov. Rick Scott. Deal met with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley in March.
Jackie Schutz, a Scott spokesman, indicated Florida will continue moving forward with the lawsuit.
“We are pleased by last week’s decision (by Lancaster) and will continue the litigation,” she said.
Much of the economy of Franklin County in the Florida Panhandle depends on the Apalachicola Bay’s seafood industry, especially its oysters. The bay has historically been an economic driver for Northwest Florida, providing 90 percent of the state’s oysters and 10 percent of the nation’s oyster supply. But the bay collapsed in 2012, and the lack of freshwater combined with a historic drought and a tropical storm to produce the lowest flows in 89 years. The bay was declared a federal fishery disaster in 2013.