Georgia gains major court victory over Florida in decades-long dispute over Apalachicola Bay water use

Kristin Lam, USA TODAY
Georgia gains major court victory over Florida in decades-long dispute over Apalachicola Bay water use

A judge has recommended the Supreme Court side with Georgia over Florida in a decades-long water dispute

The court should reject Florida's request to limit how Georgia uses water from shared rivers, U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Kelly Jr. wrote in a ruling issued Wednesday. 

Since the 1990s, Florida has alleged Georgia used too much water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, hurting residents of the Sunshine State. Florida officials also argued that decreased flows caused the collapse of an oyster fishery in Apalachicola Bay, but Kelly said the state failed to prove the issue was Georgia's fault. 

“We are pleased with Special Master Kelly's recommendation and especially his recognition of Georgia’s significant water conservation and efficiency efforts," Katherine Zitsch, director of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, said in a statement. "Since 2001, water withdrawals in metro Atlanta have dropped by more than 10%, even as our population has increased by 1.3 million.”

Florida State University's marine science lab will use $8 million from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement to rebuild Apalachicola Bay's oyster farming industry.

Noah Valenstein, secretary of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency was “extremely disappointed” in the judge’s recommendation.

“The state of Florida remains committed to restoring the historic flows of the Apalachicola River and the families who rely on this river for their livelihood,” Valenstein said in a statement.

The collapse of the fishery that once produced 10% of the nation's oysters has jeopardized the livelihood of many Florida oystermen and the economic vitality of coastal communities where seafood is the primary industry.

'Water Wars': Supreme Court ruling imminent but battle to save Apalachicola Bay won't end soon

Ten years ago, the Apalachicola Bay supported several hundred oyster boats harvesting about 20 bags per day. Today, only a dozen or so boats patrol the bay, collecting just two bags of oysters daily.

Kelly did not support Florida's argument that diverting water to Georgia increases salinity in the bay, which kills oysters. Georgia Ackerman, executive director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, said the decision was disheartening. 

"The Apalachicola River and Bay, an exceptionally significant ecological system is at a tipping point," Ackerman said in a statement. "Significant ecological gains could occur for the entire Apalachicola River and Bay ecosystem with a modest increase in water."

Kelly is the second judge the Supreme Court appointed to review the case. In 2017, Special Master Ralph Lancaster Jr. also sided with Georgia, determining that while Florida had suffered harm from the decreased water flow in the river basin, it had not proven that limiting the amount of water Georgia consumed would provide the relief it sought. 

But last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Lancaster was too strict in his decision and remanded the case for further consideration. 

Contributing: Nicquel Terry Ellis, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Georgia wins court battle against Florida over Apalachicola water use