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Final fight in water wars coming on Monday
Argument between Georgia, Florida, Alabama heads to Supreme Court
Lake Lanier

The last battle of Georgia’s water wars is three days away.

Georgia and Florida are set to make their final arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday on whether Georgia uses too much water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin before the water hits Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, harming Florida residents and its oyster industry.

Supreme Court justices aren’t expected to rule on the case on Monday, but attorneys for both sides will have an hour to present their final arguments for the court to consider. A substantial amount of the arguments considered by the court are presented on paper through the course of the case, which has lasted years.

Georgia has been doing well in the courts up to now. 

Florida seeks a hard cap on Georgia’s annual water consumption from the river systems — of which the Chattahoochee River and Lake Lanier form a significant part. A special master of the Supreme Court, Maine attorney Ralph Lancaster, was appointed to handle the bulk of the case and determined in February that Florida had failed to prove a consumption cap would help its residents.

Georgia attorneys and its state leaders, meanwhile, are adamant that a consumption cap is certain to cause enormous financial damage to the Peach State. The Chattahoochee River and Lake Lanier provides most of the drinking water to metro Atlanta.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls the flow of water from Lake Lanier, though permitting of water utilities is controlled by the Georgia Department of Environmental Conservation.

The office of Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr, which is handling Georgia’s part in the case, isn’t commenting on the case or the oral arguments before Monday, said spokeswoman Katelyn McCreary.

One organization has been closely watching the case but has not become directly involved in the litigation: the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental conservation group dedicated to preserving the watershed.

Chris Manganiello, its water policy director, told The Times on Thursday that the group hasn’t taken sides in the case but hopes for a sustainable water use plan that meets the needs of Georgia, Florida and Alabama. He said he believes such an agreement is possible but would require changes to how the Army Corps releases water from Lake Lanier.

But Manganiello noted that he believes Lancaster’s work on the issue has been “thorough, thoughtful and soundly reasoned.” 

The Riverkeeper’s lead counsel, Kevin Jeselnik, said on Thursday that he believed Lancaster did an outstanding job and that Florida’s argument was a “difficult case that would be tough to win under almost any circumstance.”

Lancaster recommended denying Florida’s requests for relief — the cap on Georgia’s water consumption.

At the same time, Manganiello noted that Lancaster believed Florida had shown that it was suffering harm from the amount of water flowing into its state, it just hadn’t shown that Georgia is to blame or that capping consumption would solve the problem.

He said that means that even if the court rules in Georgia’s favor, it shouldn’t be counted as a “win” for the state. In coming months and years, Georgia will need to take steps to continue conserving metropolitan water use and extend conservation to its farmers.

“In the first half of 2017, the state of Georgia did start to take a very hard look at their agricultural water management,” Manganiello said, noting that the state needs to require metered water use for agriculture.

Ultimately, the water policy director said a permanent resolution won’t be possible without bringing the Army Corps into the settlement.

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

He noted the conclusions reached by the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Stakeholders group, a working group similar to the Lake Lanier Stakeholders but looking at the larger watershed, came to a similar conclusion in a 2015 report on water use.

“The water that we think Florida needs, that Georgia needs, that Alabama needs — we think it’s there,” Manganiello said. “It’s just a question of managing the system appropriately, That requires the Army Corps of Engineers to go along with a sustainable water management plan.”