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Conservation groups seek to weigh in on Georgia-Florida water wars case
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Several big-name conservation organizations are seeking to give input to the U.S. Supreme Court battle between Florida and Georgia over water sharing in a basin the two states share.

The National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Florida Wildlife Federation and Apalachicola Riverkeeper are asking Ralph Lancaster, a Maine lawyer set to preside over an Oct. 31 trial between the two states, to allow them to file “friend of the court” briefs in the matter.

“The court’s decision here will directly determine the fate of the Apalachicola River watershed and may well establish important precedent for future interstate water disputes that inevitably will arise in the face of growing human populations, a changing climate regime, and myriad federal and state legal mandates to protect ecosystem health,” the organizations stated in a court document filed Thursday.

The groups don’t say specifically they are siding with Florida — or against Georgia — in the document.

But they say the favor “equitable apportionment” for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Basin, which includes Lake Lanier in the headwaters.

They said such an act would “account for the significant ecological needs of the downstream floodplain river system. Doing so will benefit not only the ecologically exceptional Apalachicola River watershed in Florida but also the significant ecological needs of the upstream Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers in Georgia and the downstream eastern Gulf of Mexico.”

The groups added: “Today, the Apalachicola River floodplain ecosystem is in crisis and on a path to collapse. The court’s decision in this case may well determine its fate and the future of the downstream bay.”

Also, earlier in September, J.B. Ruhl, the David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair of Law at Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville, Tenn., filed a motion seeking to file a brief supporting Florida.

Formerly, he taught at the Florida State University College of Law, where he “devoted considerable research attention to the issues involved in this litigation.”

The purpose of his brief would be “to advance the argument that the court’s equitable allocation doctrine should incorporate principles of ecosystem services and apply them in this matter.”

The Supreme Court trial, set to take place at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Portland, Maine, centers around a lawsuit filed by Florida against Georgia — the latest volley in a decadeslong “water wars” between the states.

Florida is basically accusing Georgia of “overconsumption” of water in the basin, leading to economic troubles for Florida’s oyster industry in the Gulf of Mexico.

Georgia has denied the allegations.

Both sides have said they’re actively engaged in mediation, stating as much in their Sept. 2 status reports to Lancaster.

“Florida continues to hope that the mediation process can break through the deadlock that has prevented resolution of these issues for multiple decades,” Florida’s lawyers said.

Said Georgia: “Senior Georgia officials, including officials from the attorney general’s office, the governor’s office and the Environmental Protection Division, remain involved in the mediation process.”

In the meantime, the Army Corps of Engineers is working on a final version of operating plans for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which also straddles Alabama.

A final version of the document is set to be released later this year, corps spokesman Pat Robbins has said.