The National Sea Grant Law Center


  • Supreme Court Sides with Georgia Against Florida in Long-Running Water Rights Dispute

  • April 15th, 2021 — by Betsy Lee Montague — Category: Environmental Law

  • The U.S. Supreme Court recently dismissed a lawsuit brought by the State of Florida against the State of Georgia concerning the proper apportionment of interstate waters. Florida v. Georgia, No. 142, 2021 WL 1215718 (U.S. Apr. 1, 2021). In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the Court rejected Florida’s argument that Georgia was consuming more than its fair share of water from an interstate network of rivers in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin.

    The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin spans more than 20,000 square miles in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. The Basin contains three rivers. The Chattahoochee River and the Flint River are critical sources of water for Georgia, particularly for the Atlanta area and Georgia’s agricultural industry. The third river, the Apalachicola River, flows south through the Florida Panhandle and supports a wide variety of plant and animal species, including oysters.

    Following the third regional drought in just over ten years, Florida brought suit against Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. Because the dispute was between two states, it fell under the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction. Therefore, the case went straight to the Court, rather than needing to work its way through lower courts. Florida claimed Georgia’s overconsumption of water caused low flows in the Apalachicola River, which in turn harmed Florida’s oyster fisheries and river ecosystem. As a remedy, Florida sought an order that would require Georgia to reduce its consumption of Basin waters. The Court appointed two different Special Masters, both of which recommended that the Court deny Florida’s requested relief. Florida filed exceptions to the Special Masters’ recommendations.

    Due to the competing state interests at issue, the burden of proof for Florida was much greater than the burden ordinarily borne by a private party seeking an injunction. In this case, the Court said Florida had to make two showings to obtain an equitable apportionment of the water, allowing the state to restrict Georgia’s consumption in favor of its own. First, Florida had to prove a threatened or actual injury of serious magnitude caused by Georgia’s water consumption. Second, Florida was required to demonstrate that the benefits of an apportionment to Florida would “substantially outweigh” the harm that might result to Georgia. The Court noted that because Georgia and Florida are both riparian states, meaning they follow the common law of riparian rights to water, the guiding principle of the dispute would be ensuring that both states have an “equal right to make a reasonable use” of the Basin water. Florida v. Georgia, No. 142, 2021 WL 1215718, at *4 (U.S. Apr. 1, 2021).

    Florida asserted that Georgia’s overconsumption of Basin waters caused two separate injuries: the collapse of its oyster fisheries and injury to its river ecosystem. Although the Court agreed with Florida that the collapse of its oyster sales constituted an injury of “serious magnitude,” the Court nevertheless disagreed as to the cause of the collapse. While Florida blamed the collapse on Georgia’s unreasonable agricultural water consumption, Georgia pointed to a more direct cause—Florida’s mismanagement of its oyster fisheries. In particular, Georgia claimed that Florida caused the collapse by overharvesting oysters and failing to replace harvested oyster shells.

    After reviewing the record of witnesses and evidence, the Court agreed with the Special Master that Florida failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the collapse of its oyster fisheries was caused by Georgia’s overconsumption. Specifically, the Court stated that Florida’s own witnesses and documents revealed that Florida allowed unparalleled levels of oyster harvesting in the years before the collapse, and also that other factors like changing rainfall patterns and multiyear droughts may have played a role. The Court held that 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” and, therefore, failed to carry its burden of proving causation. Id. at *6.

    The Court overruled Florida’s exceptions to the Special Masters’ Reports and dismissed the case. Therefore, Georgia may continue consuming water from the Basin as it has been.

  • Betsy Lee Montague
    NSGLC Research Associate

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