Supreme Court Rules for Georgia in Water Fight With Florida

The high court unanimously ruled that Florida didn’t prove Georgia’s overconsumption of water caused the collapse of the Sunshine State’s oyster fisheries.

Oyster harvesters set out early in the Florida Panhandle’s Apalachicola Bay in 2016. (Taimy Alvarez/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File)

(CN) — In a unanimous decision Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant Florida’s request for a decree limiting Georgia’s use of water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, putting an end to a decades-long fight between the states over water centered on their respective fishing and agricultural industries. 

In a 9-page opinion, Justice Amy Coney Barrett denied Florida’s request for a decree that would have capped Georgia’s water consumption and rejected arguments that the Peach State uses more than its fair share of water. 

During oral arguments in February, an attorney for Florida told the court that Georgia’s “unrestrained” water usage, combined with droughts and climate change, wreaked havoc on the Apalachicola Bay oyster industry and caused its 2012 collapse. The Sunshine State requested water usage limits so more freshwater could flow to the bay, hopefully boosting the oyster harvest. 

A special master found in 2019 that the measures to increase freshwater flows could cost Georgia and its farmers about $100 million per drought year.  

“Considering the record as a whole, Florida has not shown that it is ‘highly probable’ that Georgia’s alleged overconsumption played more than a trivial role in the collapse of Florida’s oyster fisheries,” Barrett wrote.  

Barrett, the high court’s newest member, acknowledged that the justices “lack the expertise” to determine the precise causes of the oyster collapse but emphasized that Georgia “has an obligation to make reasonable use of basin waters in order to help conserve that increasingly scarce resource.” 

Florida may have avoided dismissal if it had proven both that Georgia’s water consumption caused a threatened or actual injury “of serious magnitude” and that the benefits of an apportionment would substantially outweigh the harm that might result, according to the ruling.  

But the Sunshine State failed to show that the collapse of the Apalachicola Bay oyster population was Georgia’s fault. 

“Florida’s own documents and witnesses reveal that Florida allowed unprecedented levels of oyster harvesting in the years before the collapse. In 2011 and 2012, oyster harvests from the bay were larger than in any other year on record,” Barrett wrote. 

The justices found that Florida “failed to adequately reshell its oyster bars” while harvesting oysters “at a record pace.” 

A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection did not immediately provide comment Thursday. 

Shannon Hartsfield, president of the now-defunct Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, said Thursday that the ongoing dispute has been a source of frustration for Florida fishermen. 

“We’ve been dealing with a nightmare pretty much and absolutely, it’s continuing,” he said. 

The trade association which formerly represented Franklin County’s oystermen submitted an amicus brief in the case in April 2020 asking the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Florida. The association argued that without a steady supply of freshwater, Apalachicola Bay’s oyster beds will continue to suffer. 

“We could have an industry. It won’t be like it was before… but that’s not gonna happen the way the river is being managed,” he said. 

Preston Robertson, CEO of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said Thursday that the organization is “disheartened” by the decision. 

“The Apalachicola River and Bay were once a renowned natural resource, with the bay producing approximately 10% of the oysters consumed in the nation. That oyster fishery is now so depleted, it is illegal to harvest there. Water flow is the major cause of the demise of the oysters and the jobs that went along with them. Georgia’s consumption of this water has had drastic and highly negative downstream impacts,” Robertson said. 

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