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6 things to know before Supreme Court rules in water war between Georgia, Florida
Decision expected this week could determine state’s future water use
Lake Lanier

Georgia’s pivotal water rights court battle with Florida will be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

Supreme Court justices are releasing their last four decisions for the current term, which runs October to June, in the coming days.

Court observers are split on when the next decisions could come out, including whether justices will release the final decisions at the same time or stagger them through the rest of the week.

Here are a few things to know about the case that could affect the future of metro Atlanta and the state:

What’s the quick version?

The “water wars” case centers on Lake Lanier but includes the entire Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which flows from Georgia, along the Alabama border, and into Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

Florida claims its residents in the panhandle are being harmed by Georgia’s use of water from the river system and seeks a cap on water being drawn from Lake Lanier and its connected rivers. Georgia has balked at a cap, which could choke agriculture and development, throwing the issue into the courts for decades.

Why is the Supreme Court involved?

The water wars case is a dispute primarily between two state governments, making the nation’s highest court the only one qualified to handle such a case.

What have I missed?

Georgia’s case has for the most part done well through the process.

The court-appointed special master, Maine lawyer Ralph Lancaster, has been persuaded by Georgia’s case and recommended the court side with the Peach State.

A special master is appointed by justices to adjudicate most of the case, and his or her opinion weighs heavily in the court but doesn’t determine the outcome. Lancaster is an experienced special master, having served in the role in at least two other disputes between states.

Lancaster decided Florida had not proved its case that a cap on Georgia’s water use was justified.

However, Georgia lawyers were grilled by justices during oral arguments in January — a surprise to observers who have followed the case through the special master’s adjudication.

The Supreme Court justices asked tough questions of both sides — apparently searching for a compromise between the two states.

“Can we agree that a cap at the very least would prevent — would prevent the situation in Florida from getting worse?” asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of Georgia’s attorney, Craig Primis.

“That is, that if we do nothing, then the situation in Florida can get worse, even worse than it is now,” Ginsburg continued. “If there is a cap, then Florida is protected at least to that extent. It won’t get worse. Is that not so?”

Isn’t the lake controlled by the Army Corps?

Correct. The flow of water into Florida is controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — the reason why Georgia’s lawyer disagreed with Ginsburg. He noted the corps keeps a minimum amount of water flowing through the basin and into Florida even during drought years for the benefit of wildlife in the basin.

The corps releases water from the Buford Dam based on its water control manual, a master plan that was updated in 2017.

Lake Lanier supplies most of the drinking water for metro Atlanta and almost all of the water for Hall County, generates electricity for state power providers and supplies critical habitat for wildlife throughout the Southeast.

What could the Supreme Court decide?

There are basically three possible results out of the decision, according to Chris Manganiello, water policy director for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper:

  • The court sides with Georgia and leaves the status quo in place, representing a huge loss for Florida.

  • Justices side with Florida and mandate some form of restrictions on Georgia’s water use.

  • The court endorses Lancaster’s opinion, which found that while Florida has suffered harm from up-system water use, it’s not clear that a consumption cap would help the state — but it is clear that a cap would do grievous damage to Georgia. This result would be the most expected, Manganiello said, but would extend the fight by requiring additional water conservation negotiations between the states and a continued, or tighter, conservation regimen in Georgia.

So is this the end for water wars?

Probably not.

Florida chose to sue Georgia rather that the federal agency, and Army Corps lawyers told the court during the January hearing that they would take the result of the case into consideration but that they’re not bound by it because of the corps’ mandate from Congress.

The corps’ absence from the case was a major hangup for justices, and water use experts watching the case also see it as a fatal flaw in the case — however it’s decided.

“To reach a remedy without the Army Corps of Engineers just seems like it was implausible,” Manganiello said in January. “Instead of sitting on the sidelines, they have to be part of the solution.”

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