For most of the last three decades, Florida, Georgia, and Alabama have waged a multifront water war, filing cases in federal courts across the United States. This war, and these cases, turn on apportionment of two river basins: the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin and the Alabama-Coosa- Tallapoosa (ACT) River Basin. At the heart of this legal tug of war lie competing uses—and visions—for the basins.
On one side sits Georgia and six million thirsty Atlantans. Atlanta relies on Lake Lanier (part of the ACF Basin) and Lake Allatoona (part of the ACT Basin) for most of its drinking water. Sitting on the other side are Florida and Alabama, which depend on adequate downstream flows for multiple competing uses. Florida’s oyster industry, in particular, needs enough ACF Basin freshwater supply to support and sustain it.
These disputes came to a head in the 1990s and 2000s. During those decades, more than a half-dozen cases floated around federal courts in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., each challenging different aspects of the management by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) of the Lanier and Allatoona lakes.
Fast forward to 2011 and 2012 when the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals resolved these by-then-consolidated suits, mostly in Georgia’s favor. The Eleventh Circuit dismissed several of Florida’s and Alabama’s claims as premature; because the Corps hadn’t yet made a final water supply decision as those claims came too early. On top of that, the Eleventh Circuit further held that Congress explicitly authorized the Corps to funnel drinking water from at least Lake Lanier to metropolitan Atlanta. It remanded the case to the Corps to figure out how much drinking water it should supply to Atlanta. In short, Georgia won round one.1
Florida opened round two in 2013, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to equitably apportion the ACF Basin’s waters. By seeking to sue Georgia directly, Florida triggered the Supreme Court’s “original jurisdiction.” In other words, Florida and Georgia started at the Supreme Court, rather than ending there. Unlike the earlier blizzard of cases, Florida v. Georgia (the case, not the cocktail party), asked the Court to “equitably apportion” the ACF Basin. That is, rather than suing the Corps—a roundabout way to get a similar result—Florida sued Georgia directly, asking the Court to limit Georgia’s consumptive use to 1992 levels.
Florida argues, in essence, that Georgia overconsumes ACF Basin waters. In Florida’s telling, Georgia’s overuse triggers negative environmental effects, including the collapse of Northwest Florida’s oyster population. Georgia, in response, contends that Lake Lanier is a linchpin of Atlanta’s drinking water supply and that Florida’s injuries are attributable to climate change, fishery mismanagement, and other causes.
Republished with permission. The full article, "Round and Round Florida (and Georgia) Go: An Update on the Florida-Georgia Water Wars," was published in November 2020 issue of the Florida Water Resources Journal.