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 requested a decree restricting Georgia’s consumptive water use to levels that existed in 1992. According to Florida, this restriction was necessary because they claimed Georgia’s use of water from the basin harmed environmental interests in the Apalachicola River and Bay. Florida claimed Georgia’s water use increased salinities in Apalachicola Bay, which in turn caused the bay’s oyster fishery to collapse. For its part, Georgia denied that its water use harmed Florida, explaining that its current and projected future water use would 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 was the result of environmental factors and mismanagement by the State of Florida.
In order to prevail, Florida needed to 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.
In April 2021, the Supreme Court unanimously denied Florida’s request and dismissed its Complaint. The Supreme Court found that Florida had failed to prove that Georgia’s water use had caused the decline in the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery or harmed riverine and plant species in the Florida.
While the Supreme Court observed that “the precise causes of the Bay’s oyster collapse remain a subject of ongoing scientific debate,” the Court rejected Florida’s argument “that Georgia’s overconsumption—and the consequent increased salinity and predation—was the sole cause of the collapse, or at least a substantial factor contributing to it.” The Supreme Court observed that “Florida’s own documents and witnesses reveal that Florida allowed unprecedented levels of oyster harvesting in the years before the collapse” and “that Florida failed to adequately reshell its oyster bars.”
The Supreme Court also observed that modeling by Florida’s expert “showed that reducing Georgia’s consumption by an amount ‘similar to the relief that Florida is requesting’ in this case would have increased oyster biomass by less than 1.5% in 2012,” explaining that “the data and modeling of [Florida’s] own experts” shows “that Georgia’s consumption had little to no impact on the Bay’s oyster population.” Given this, the Court ruled that Florida failed prove “that Georgia’s alleged overconsumption played more than a trivial role in the collapse of Florida’s oyster fisheries.”
The Supreme Court also ruled that Florida had not proved that Georgia’s water use “harmed river wildlife and plant life by disconnecting tributaries, swamps, and sloughs from the Apalachicola River, thereby drying out important habitats for river species.” The Supreme Court agreed with the Special Master appointed to oversee the case that there was “ ‘a complete lack of evidence’ that any river species suffered serious injury from Georgia’s alleged overconsumption.” Thus, the Supreme Court ruled: “Without stronger evidence of actual past or threatened harm to species in the Apalachicola River, we cannot find it ‘highly probable’ that these species have suffered serious injury, let alone as a result of any overconsumption by Georgia.”
The case also marked a turning point for Metro Atlanta’s water use. Consistent with its public claims over many years, Florida asserted in its complaint that Municipal and Industrial (M&I) water use in Metro Atlanta was unreasonable and harmed the environment downstream. Based on the evidence presented at trial, however, the Special Master found that Atlanta’s M&I “consumption has been reasonable,” noting the “concrete steps” taken “to increase efficiency and conserve in this area,” the “effectiveness” of those conservation programs, and the large benefits generated by its water use for millions of people in Metro Atlanta who depend on the Chattahoochee River for their water supply. Florida declined to challenge these findings in the Supreme Court and expressly abandoned any challenge to water use in Metro Atlanta.
A timeline and status of the case is provided below. The case is Florida v. Georgia, No. 142 Original. The U.S. Supreme Court granted Florida’s request to file suit against Georgia in November 2014. The Court heard the case on February 22, 2021, and a final ruling was issued in April 2021. The Supreme Court's docket can be accessed here, while filings in the Special Master's proceeding are available here.