Florida to Sue Georgia in U.S. Supreme Court Over WaterToluse Olorunnipa and Michael C. Bender
Florida plans to file a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit against Georgia, saying the state is consuming too much water that would otherwise flow to Florida, the latest battle nationally over an increasingly scarce resource.
The dispute is fueled by the rapid growth of the metropolitan area surrounding Atlanta, which is demanding more water and hurting the oyster industry in Northwest Florida, Florida Governor Rick Scott, 60, said yesterday. Scott, a Republican, said he would file suit next month after the two states couldn’t reach an agreement.
“That’s our water,” Scott told reporters while standing next to the Apalachicola Bay in the Florida Panhandle. “They’ve impacted our families. They’ve impacted the livelihood of people down here.”
For more than 20 years, Florida, Georgia and Alabama have been mired in negotiations over the distribution of water shared by the three states. The dispute is emblematic of an increasingly common challenge facing cities and states across the country: Demand for water is outpacing supply as urban development and population growth sap resources.
Urban development in Georgia has led to an increased need for water, much of it pumped from a river basin that’s also relied on by Florida and Alabama.
Georgia has engaged in “unchecked consumption of water,” while not negotiating in good faith, making a lawsuit the only way to resolve the matter, Scott said in a statement.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, 70, a Republican, said in a statement that Scott’s planned lawsuit is a “frivolous waste of time and money.”
“Scott’s threat to sue my state in the U.S. Supreme Court greatly disappoints me after I negotiated in good faith for two years,” Deal said. “More than a year ago, I offered a framework for a comprehensive agreement. Florida never responded.”
Legal disputes between states must be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, instead of going through lower courts first, according to the Constitution.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for managing the water in the states’ shared river basin, which spans the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint rivers.
Officials in Alabama, which has also fought Georgia over water distribution, haven’t said whether they’ll join in the lawsuit. The state will consider “all available options” to protect its water rights, said Jennifer Ardis, a spokeswoman for Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, a Republican, in an e-mail.
At a hearing yesterday in Apalachicola, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, and U.S Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, both blamed Georgia for taking more than its fair share of water. Georgia’s consumption, along with a drought last year, threatens fisheries and economic development in the Florida Panhandle, they said.
The oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay has collapsed over the past year. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a fishery disaster declaration on Aug. 12 over oysters.
Scott and Nelson have both pushed for the disaster declaration during the past year.
“The changes to water flow have decimated a once booming industry, but I’m hopeful we can soon start to turn things around,” Nelson said in a statement.
Apalachicola Bay supplies 10 percent of the nation’s oysters, according to a December report by Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The industry supports about 2,500 jobs in Florida, according to the report.
Many of those jobs, and perhaps the industry, are at risk due to the lack of fresh water flowing into the bay, Rubio said.
“We don’t have time,” said Rubio. “In a couple years, there may not be anybody left to save around here in this industry.”