Posted on December 12, 2017 by James I. Palmer, Jr.
As a kid growing up in the hills of North Mississippi, I was introduced to oysters by my maternal Grandmother in Biloxi, down on our Coast. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the slimy mollusks then, but my tastes changed over many years and I now enjoy them, especially in po’boys and on the half shell.
For the longest, I have considered oysters from Apalachicola Bay, Florida, to be the best along the Gulf Coast. Large, plump, salty, everything an oyster fan likes. But, today the oyster industry in the Bay has declined dramatically, and many Floridians believe that the ultimate fate of this historic mainstay of the economy of the area will soon be determined by the Justices of the United States Supreme Court.
The “Tri-State Water Wars” among Alabama, Georgia, and Florida are now several decades long, and never more intense. Two interstate compacts, covering six river basins in the three states, failed to yield an “equitable apportionment” of the flows from these basins, and expired by their terms. Follow-on negotiations fared no better. So, in 2013 Florida sued Georgia in the Original Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, but didn’t join Alabama. The case was tried before the Special Master from October 31, 2016 through December 1, 2016.
At the core of Florida’s claims is the ever-growing demand for water in Georgia, principally (but not only) in metropolitan Atlanta. Even the definition of “metropolitan Atlanta” differs among websites, so the data showing the population trends over the last 50 years also differs somewhat, but the numbers I will use for general reference show that the population of metropolitan Atlanta was 3,317,000 in 1990, 4,548,000 in 2000, 5,034,000 in 2004, and the 2010 U.S. Census recorded 5,800,000. I’ve seen one projection of 8,000,000 by 2020. Using these statistics purely for the sake of argument, the population of metropolitan Atlanta in 2020 – just over two years away – could have grown by over 240% in 30 years.
Too, production agriculture in southwestern Georgia, heavily dependent upon surface water and groundwater supplies for irrigation, has also burgeoned during this same time period. Groundwater levels in the Flint River basin have declined significantly because of what one of Georgia’s own witnesses at trial attributed to essentially lax regulatory management at the State level. No surprise, these declines in groundwater availability have ratcheted up pressures on surface water resources in the Flint River watershed.
Thus, given these twin realities of seemingly insatiable urban and agricultural demands for water in Georgia, it’s no wonder that folks down in the Apalachicola Bay area staunchly believe that this is the principal cause of declining freshwater flows into the Bay, and, inevitably, will lead to the irrecoverable loss of the Bay ecosystem, itself.
The Special Master rendered his Report on February 14, 2017, and it was filed on March 20, 2017. The Special Master found, as a matter of fact and law, that Florida had failed to prove its case by clear and convincing evidence, and recommended that the Supreme Court deny Florida’s claims.
Florida filed its Exceptions to the Report of the Special Master on May 31, 2017. Georgia filed its Reply opposing Florida’s objections on July 31, 2017, and Florida filed its Sur-reply on August 30, 2017. Amicus briefs supporting Georgia’s position have been filed by the United States (on behalf of the Corps of Engineers), the State of Colorado, and the Atlanta Regional Commission, et al. The case has been set for oral argument before the Supreme Court on Monday, January 8, 2018.
Of the several issues before the Court, the two major ones are the “clear and convincing evidence” burden of proof standard the Special Master imposed upon Florida and the general issue of “redressability,” which turns on the obligation of Florida to prove both substantial (some would say “irreparable”) injury and that the relief sought (a consumption cap on Georgia water use, primarily in the Flint River Basin) would, in fact, provide additional flows into Apalachicola Bay sufficient to save the ecosystem and the oyster industry. Understandably, Georgia strongly rejects Florida’s contentions.
The cases relied upon by Georgia and the amici are, in the main, decisions in litigation between and among western states whose organic water resources laws are grounded in the doctrine of prior appropriation. Here, the dispute is between two states whose organic water resources laws arise under the common law doctrine of riparianism (or, in modern times, regulated riparianism). Interestingly, because the Supreme Court departed from pure riparian principles in early cases involving interstate fights over the water needs of huge urban areas like New York City, Florida contends that it is appropriate in this case for the Court to apply traditional equitable principles in addition to equitable apportionment principles that have evolved over many years of case law. While not dismissing the argument out of hand, I think it could be a real challenge for Florida to make it stick.
Ultimately, the Court will either accept the Report and recommendations of the Special Master and dismiss Florida’s case outright, or decline to accept the Report and remand the case to the Special Master for further proceedings. Given the deference the Supreme Court generally accords Special Masters in Original Jurisdiction cases, I think Florida, figuratively, now has to push a very heavy anchor chain up a very steep hill to stay in the fight it started. If the State fails, locals say that the loss will likely result in a knockout blow to the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay, which is already on the ropes. Maybe, yes. Maybe, no. Maybe, not yet. Time will tell. Oh, well, some folks don’t like oysters, anyway….