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Florida takes water wars to Supreme Court
Lawsuit alleges overconsumption by Georgia
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Florida is delivering the latest salvo in a two-decade water dispute with Georgia.

The Sunshine State is alleging in a lawsuit filed in the U.S. Supreme Court that its northern neighbor is using too much freshwater in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin, which includes Lake Lanier.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi announced the expected legal action Tuesday, with Scott saying in a news release from his office that it was needed “to stop Georgia’s unmitigated consumption of water.”
“Georgia has refused to fairly share the waters that flow between our two states,” Scott said.

The state’s “overconsumption ... threatens the existence of Apalachicola Bay and the future economic development of the region,” he added. “Generations of Florida families have relied upon these waters for their livelihood but now risk losing their way of life if Georgia’s actions are not stopped.”

Scott announced his intentions to sue on Aug. 13, saying at the time, “This lawsuit will be targeted toward one thing — fighting for the future of Apalachicola.”

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s spokesman Brian Robinson said in response to Florida’s action, “The only ‘unmitigated consumption’ going on around here is Florida’s waste of our tax dollars on a frivolous lawsuit.”

“Florida is receiving historically high water flows at the state line this year, but it needs a bogeyman to blame for its poor management of Apalachicola Bay.”

Georgia’s conservation efforts have decreased metro Atlanta’s water use “even as our population has grown substantially, and Georgia offered a framework for an agreement which never received a response from Florida.

“This lawsuit is political theater and nothing more. We’ve won consistently in court and will defend Georgia’s water rights vigorously in the Supreme Court, because our case is the only one with any merit.”

The dispute hinges largely over withdrawals from Lake Lanier, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir on the Chattahoochee River that provides water to metro Atlanta. The Chattahoochee and Flint rivers merge to form the Apalachicola River, which flows to the Gulf of Mexico.

In 2009, a federal judge ruled that metro Atlanta had little right to take water from Lake Lanier. He then ordered that metro Atlanta’s water withdrawals would be drastically restricted unless the three states reached a settlement.

A three-judge panel from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta overturned that ruling in 2011, finding that metro Atlanta could use the reservoir for water, with restrictions.

Georgia then gained further leverage in June 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Florida and Alabama of the 11th Circuit ruling.

The corps is currently studying how much water North Georgia can take from the system. But corps officials have acknowledged it will be years before that study is complete.

Water officials in Atlanta have disputed that the metro area’s consumption is harming the oyster fishery and say recent problems have more to do with drought.

The ACF Stakeholders, a group formed nearly five years ago to try to reach a mutual water-sharing agreement, is continuing its work in governing board meetings this week at Unicoi State Park in Helen. The organization hopes to eventually present findings of a data-driven study to the corps and the three states.

Joanna Cloud, executive director of the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association, described the latest development as “frustrating,” especially in light of the work by groups such as the ACF Stakeholders.

“I think the ultimate resolution for water sharing in the ACF basin would be much better if arrived at through educated, fact-based dialogues among the actual stakeholders, instead of protracted legal action and political maneuvering,” she said.

Metro Atlanta “has made great strides in its water conservation policies and is, in fact, more progressive than the vast majority of all communities in the United States, including almost all of Florida,” Cloud said.

Key West, which ports water in from the mainland, is the only Florida community with a lower per capita consumption rate than metro Atlanta, she said.

Also, “Georgia and the Lake Lanier Association are forced into a defensive position by Florida’s action, which takes resources and efforts away from other projects that could be underway,” Cloud said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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