U.S. Supreme Court: Equitable Apportionment

Posted in: Natural Resources

In October 2013, Florida asked the U.S. Supreme Court for permission to sue Georgia for an “equitable apportionment” of the waters of the ACF Basin. This type of case—where one state is directly suing another state—can only be heard in the U.S. Supreme Court...

An equitable apportionment action is very different from other litigation surrounding Lake Lanier. Each of the other cases have been brought against the federal agencies (e.g., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service), and focused on particular aspects of the Corps’ operation of the ACF Basin reservoirs—for example, its compliance with environmental laws like NEPA or the Endangered Species Act, or the Corps’ legal authority to meet metro Atlanta’s water supply needs from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River.

An equitable apportionment action, in contrast, asks the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a decree stating how much water each State can use. In essence, Florida has asked the Court to divide the waters of the ACF Basin between the two states.

Florida’s lawsuit against Georgia requests a decree restricting Georgia’s consumptive water use to levels that existed in 1992. According to Florida, this restriction is necessary because Georgia’s use of water from the basin has harmed environmental interests in the Apalachicola River and Bay. Florida claims Georgia’s water use has increased salinities in Apalachicola Bay, which in turn has caused the bay’s oyster fishery to collapse. For its part, Georgia denies that its water use has harmed Florida, explaining that its current and projected future water use will have only “a minor impact on the flow in the Apalachicola River at the state line,” and that the collapse of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery is the result of environmental factors and mismanagement by the State of Florida.

Florida must prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that Georgia’s use causes “real or substantial injury or damage” to its “substantial interests,” including the oyster fishery in Apalachicola Bay. If Florida can make this case, then the Court must decide whether the nature and magnitude of Florida’s claimed injuries are sufficient to justify impacts that would result from the reductions Florida seeks.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted Florida’s request to file suit against Georgia in November 2014. The Court will hear the case on February 22, 2021 and a final ruling is expected by June 30, 2021. A timeline and status of the case is provided below. The case is Florida v. Georgia, No. 142 Original. The Supreme Court's docket can be accessed here, while filings in the Special Master's proceeding are available here.

A timeline of significant events in the Supreme Court litigation:

  • October 2013
    Florida submits a request to the U.S. Supreme Court for permission to file a lawsuit against Georgia requesting an “equitable apportionment” of the waters of the ACF Basin. An equitable apportionment is a decree stating how much water each State can use. Florida’s lawsuit can only proceed if the Court agrees to hear the case.
  • November 2014
    The Supreme Court grants Florida’s motion to file its case against Georgia. The Court appoints Maine Attorney Ralph Lancaster, Jr. as the first Special Master to oversee the case.

Page last updated on February 3, 2021.

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