Georgia Prevails in Water War With Florida

April 1, 2021 by Dan McCue
Apalachicola Bay, Florida (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

WASHINGTON – A cross-border battle over water rights extending back some 27 years came to an abrupt end on Thursday when the Supreme Court ruled Florida failed to show its once-thriving oyster region was destroyed by Georgia’s unrelenting thirst for water.

Hostilities over what constitutes the two states’ respective “fair share” of water from the interstate rivers in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin began in 1990 when state environmental officials noted a worrisome change in the delicate salinity balance of the Apalachicola Bay.

The bay had long been a thriving oyster fishery and a source of pride and much-needed revenue for an economically depressed portion of the Florida panhandle.

In 2012, the Oyster population in the bay collapsed, and Florida sued, arguing the unchecked group of the Atlanta metro area had soaked up water from the interstate rivers. Without a constant and steady influx of water, the habitat of the oysters died, Florida maintained.

On Thursday, in a unanimous opinion, the justices held Florida simply had failed to show that additional flows from Georgia would have saved its oyster industry or its river wildlife and plant life. 

“Considering the record as a whole, Florida has not shown that it is ‘highly probable’ that Georgia’s alleged overconsumption played more than a trivial role in the collapse of Florida’s oyster fisheries,” Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote for the court.

“Of course, the precise causes of the Bay’s oyster collapse remain a subject of ongoing scientific debate. As judges, we lack the expertise to settle that debate and do not purport to do so here,” she continued.

But Barrett also suggested Florida’s own actions contributed significantly to the demise of the industry.

“Florida’s own documents and witnesses reveal that Florida allowed unprecedented levels of oyster harvesting in the years before the collapse. In 2011 and 2012, oyster harvests from the Bay were larger than in any other year on record,” she wrote. “That was in part because Florida loosened various harvesting restrictions out of fear—ultimately unrealized—that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill would contaminate its oyster fisheries.

“The record also shows that Florida failed to adequately reshell its oyster bars,” she added, a practice needed to help create habitat for young oysters.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted unanimously in December to shut down oyster harvesting through 2025, in a bid to jump-start a recovery of the species in the bay.

In a joint statement, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr, the governor called the ruling a “resounding victory” for the state and a “vindication of years-long effort.”

“The Supreme Court of the United States, in a unanimous decision, affirmed what we have long known to be true: Georgia’s water use has been fair and reasonable,” Carr said.

“Our state will continue to wisely manage water resources and prioritize conservation, while also protecting Georgia’s economy and access to water,” Kemp said.

Meanwhile, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried issued a statement calling the decision “disappointing for the thousands of families whose livelihoods depend on” the river basin.

“The Court may have disagreed, but the hardworking Floridians of our oyster fisheries know that water overconsumption by Georgia has contributed to a 98% decline in value of Florida’s oyster catch,” Fried said. “While we work to protect Florida’s waters, our Division of Aquaculture will continue working hard to support our oyster industry every way that we can.”

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