Florida running short of money to fight water war; Alabama may enter the fray

By David Pendered

Florida is running out of money to litigate the water war with Georgia, Florida state budget records show. The shortfall was made public just as the states were required to meet and try to resolve the matter and deliver results by Thursday to the special master presiding over the federal lawsuit.

apalachicola, gazebo

The fate of Apalachicola Bay and its river basin is at issue in a federal court hearing. File/Credit: David Pendered

The states were to deliver their results in a confidential memo to Special Master Ralph Lancaster, according to his Jan. 3 case management order. Lancaster specifically instructed the states to consider importing water from another river basin to the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin.

The meeting was to have occurred before Tuesday and the memo delivered by Thursday. The docket did not indicate that such a memo was delivered by Thursday.

In another wrinkle, the notion of an interbasin transfer prompted Alabama to notify Lancaster that it may need to become a party to the case. Alabama’s concern is that Georgia would try to shift water from a river basin that flows into Alabama to resolve its issue with Florida.

The current case was filed by Florida against Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices named Lancaster as special master.

Concerning Florida’s situation of funding the litigation, Florida lawmakers balked Tuesday at a request for an additional $13 million. In response to the opposition, the request was withdrawn, records show.

Tri-state water wars

Alabama may seek to join the federal lawsuit over water if the solution is to import water to the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin from the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa basin, which flows into Alabama. Credit: Atlanta Regional Commission

Even the $13 million would not cover a shortfall now forecast at $17.1, according to information on the agenda of Florida’s joint House-Senate Legislative Budget Commission.

Florida predicts the cost of litigation will reach a total of $41 million by the June 30 end of the 2017 fiscal year. The state allocated $18.6 million in its FY 2017 budget, records show.

The source of the additional $4.1 million needed to cover the shortfall was not identified in agenda of the Legislative Budget Commission. Nor was it mentioned in a story about the shortfall that was published by orlandosentinel.com

The budget commission met Tuesday at 5 p.m.

The DEP item on the agenda requested approval of a plan to transfer the $13 million from two DEP trust accounts into the account used to fund litigation.

Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, approved the recommended internal transfer of funds, the agenda shows.

However, lawmakers determined the transfer request should be fully vetted by both the House and Senate, according to the report published in orlandosentinel.com.

“It’s a lot of money. It’s a significant amount of money,” House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said in the report. “I think the price tag is really what is raising some eyebrows.

“We want to really dive down into the bills, the action items and the cost,” Trujillo said.

Here’s how DEP characterized the situation in the agenda item:

Ralph Lancaster

Special Master Ralph Lancaster has ordered Florida and Georgia to consider using an interbasin water transfer to resolve the dispute over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin.

  • “The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is projecting a need for increased budget authority in the General Counsel’s Office. This increase is necessary to meet projected expenditures for outside counsel as it relates to the ongoing litigation in the Florida Georgia Supreme Court case for equitable apportionment of the waters of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin.
  • “Based upon projections from the DEP, the department was appropriated $18.6 million in the Fiscal Year 2016-17 General Appropriations Act in Specific Appropriations 1484 and 1488 of Chapter 2016-66, Laws of Florida, for litigation costs. The department utilized $2.4 million in base funding and processed a budget amendment to increase base funding by $3.0 million for litigation expenses, for a total of $23.9 million in available funding. The DEP carried over $11.7 million in expenditures from Fiscal Year 2015-16, has $7.1 million in actual billings for July and August of 2016, and the projected expenses from September 2016 through June 2017 are $22.2 million, for a total of $41.1 million in projected costs. The estimated additional need in excess of current appropriations is $17.1 million.”

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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