News & Insights

Supreme Court Dismisses Florida’s Case Against Georgia Over Water Use In The Apalachicola Chattahoochee Flint River Basin

In an April 1, 2021 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously dismissed Florida’s claims against Georgia in a long-running dispute over the use of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin. State of Florida v. State of Georgia, 141 S.Ct. 1175 (2021).  The court rejected Florida’s request for an order requiring Georgia to reduce its use of water in the Apalachicola – Chattahoochee – Flint River Basin (“Apalachicola River Basin”), affirming the Special Master’s finding that Florida did not meet its burden of proof in establishing Georgia’s water use caused serious harm to Florida’s oyster fisheries or river wildlife and plant life.

Florida filed suit against Georgia in 2013, seeking an equitable apportionment of the basin waters. Florida, the downstream state, argued that Georgia was using more than its share, causing insufficient water to reach the Florida panhandle and damaging Florida’s oyster fisheries. Georgia disputed Florida’s evidence and argued Florida’s request for an “equitable apportionment” decree would damage Georgia’s agricultural industry.

To prevail, Florida had to show “a threatened or actual injury of ‘serious magnitude’” caused by Georgia’s overconsumption of upstream water, and that the benefits to Florida of a court order would “substantially outweigh” the harm to Georgia.   The Court agreed the oyster collapse in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay after the 2012 drought was serious enough to constitute injury.  However, the Court disagreed with Florida on the cause of the collapse, writing “…Florida has not met the exacting standard necessary to warrant the exercise of this Court’s extraordinary authority to control the conduct of a coequal sovereign.”

Florida blamed the collapse on Georgia, claiming Georgia’s unreasonable agricultural water consumption caused sustained low flows in the Apalachicola River.  These low flows increased the bay’s salinity.  The higher salinity in the bay attracted droves of saltwater oyster predators and disease, ultimately decimating the oyster population.

Georgia blamed the collapse on Florida’s mismanagement of its oyster fisheries. Florida’s own evidence showed that Florida allowed unprecedented levels of oyster harvesting in the years before the collapse. The record also showed that Florida failed to adequately re-shell its oyster bars. None of Florida’s witnesses or reports pointed to Georgia’s overconsumption as a significant cause of the high salinity and predation. The Court found that Florida had 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.

The Court noted Florida’s evidence established, at most, that increased salinity and predation contributed to the collapse, not that Georgia’s overconsumption caused the increased salinity and predation.  The Court pointed to evidence of Florida’s mismanagement, overharvesting and failure to re-shell its oyster bars. The court found that Florida’s own experts failed to show that decreasing water consumption in Georgia would have helped oysters in Florida, compared to the impact of changing salinity and increased predation.

The Court emphasized Georgia’s obligation to make reasonable use of basin waters in order to help conserve that resource.  With Florida’s case dismissed, what happens next remains to be seen.  Equitable apportionment cases between states over water can be re-filed if circumstances change.