Georgians all certainly learned a hard lesson two Sundays ago, one we won’t continue to rehash other than to repeat the lesson: Don’t sit on a lead or celebrate too early; you haven’t won until you’ve played the whole game.
That applies to sporting events, but can also be a lesson to take from last week’s water ruling in the lawsuit between Florida and Georgia.
The latest chapter of the long-running water wars ended with Ralph Lancaster, a Maine attorney appointed special master by the Supreme Court, ruling in Georgia’s favor in the suit filed by Florida on behalf of its shellfish industry in the Gulf of Mexico.
Lancaster rejected Florida’s contention that Georgia’s water use in the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola river basin was harming its shellfish industry. Though he did note Georgia’s heavy use of agricultural irrigation in his ruling, he did not single out metro Atlanta’s commercial and residential water use as a cause for Florida’s oyster problems.
“Florida has failed to show that a consumption cap will afford adequate relief,” Lancaster wrote in a 70-page ruling issued Tuesday.
Hurrah, Georgians cheered, from the governor’s office to the stakeholders on Lake Lanier who want to protect the reservoir’s lake levels from increased water releases from Buford Dam, particularly in times of drought. A ruling the other way would have forced the state to roll back water consumption to early 1990s levels, when metro Atlanta and North Georgia had a much smaller population.
It is another legal victory for Georgia, which has run up a pretty good lead against Florida in court over the water dispute. But leads can dissolve and situations can change; we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves in declaring the game won. There remain other shoes that can drop that could put Georgia back on the defensive on this issue.
What can happen? Still quite a bit:
• The Supreme Court can reject Lancaster’s recommendation. This may be unlikely, since he was appointed by the court to issue a ruling, but it remains possible. The court’s 4-4 status, with a seat still unfilled, likely isn’t a factor since the water battle isn’t really a partisan issue. Yet until the court chooses to accept the ruling, it remains just a suggestion from the Maine jurist.
• Florida could file a new lawsuit, perhaps this time aimed at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lancaster hinted at this in his decision, saying it’s the corps, not the state, that controls water releases along the river basin at its dams.
“As a result, the corps can release (or not release) water largely as it sees fit,” he wrote, and cannot be ordered by the court to change its policy.
Florida could decide to continue trying for legal remedies, or instead take on the corps and approach the issue through legislative action. Which leads us to ...
• Congress, that four-letter word times two (one for each chamber), is going to get involved at some point. The corps is currently vetting its updated water manuals, that include drinking water as a clear use for Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee. When it comes time for Congress to approve them, will there be changes?
A bill passed in December instructs the states to settle the dispute among themselves through negotiation, which through more than two decades and numerous governors of both parties has yielded no progress. Short of that, Congress may jump into the fray.
It’s worth noting the combined delegations of Florida and Alabama — the latter a friend of the court with its own water disputes with our state, and home state of new Attorney General Jeff Sessions — easily outnumber Georgia’s. How the rest of the nation’s lawmakers might come down might depend on their own intrastate disputes and where their political loyalties lie.
• The drought isn’t over. Rain was more plentiful in January, but is more than an inch below normal February levels, and Lake Lanier’s water level remains 10 feet below full pool. Another dry spring could be devastating.
Dry spells have a way of pointing out how fragile our water supply can be. The river basin serves so many interests — from drinking water and recreation needs here on Lanier, down through metro Atlanta’s water use, to South Georgia farms, Alabama power plants and navigation needs, and Florida’s oyster fishermen. All have valid claims to it, which is why it needs to be shared fairly.
When the rains come and there’s enough water for everyone, the worries ease. But put us all back in the kind of drought we experienced in the last year, and a few other times over the last decade, and the stakes get higher.
The current tally may favor Georgia in the courtroom, but that’s only one battle to be fought. There’s a lot of time left on the clock and decisions to be made before we can declare an end, peaceful or otherwise, to the water wars that seemingly will go on forever.
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