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Georgia prevails over Florida in advisory on water war; Florida’s Ag commissioner won’t back down

Apalachicola River, headwater

The Jim Woodruff Dam, in the distance, creates the Lake Seminole reservoir and forms the start of the Apalachicola River, which flows to the fishery at Apalachicola Bay and thence to the Gulf of Mexico. File/Credit: David Pendered

By David Pendered

Georgia will not be required to release more water into Florida’s Apalachicola River if the U.S. Supreme Court abides by a report released Thursday by a special master appointed by the court to consider the case. Florida’s agriculture commissioner vowed to continue her state’s fight.

Apalachicola River, headwater

The Jim Woodruff Dam, in the distance, creates the Lake Seminole reservoir and forms the start of the Apalachicola River, which flows to the fishery at Apalachicola Bay and thence to the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: David Pendered

The report serves as an advisory to the Supreme Court from a special master the court appointed to follow the court’s directions on the case. Florida contends in a lawsuit it filed against Georgia that Georgia hoards water that otherwise would flow into Florida’s Apalachicola River. The lack of adequate fresh water flow has added to the collapse of the fishery at Apalachicola Bay, located east of the resort town Panama City, Fla.

The justices are not required to accept the special masters recommendations. Justices in 2018 rejected a report from the previous special master, whose 2017 report found in favor of Georgia – in part because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls the dams that regulate the rate of water flow from Georgia into Florida. Justices ruled 5-4 that the special master, Ralph Lancaster, now deceased, had applied the incorrect legal standard.
In the ruling released Thursday, the special master, U.S. Circuit Judge Paul J. Kelly, Jr., concluded his 96-page report with three statements that reject Florida’s contention:

  • “[T]he evidence has not shown harm to Florida caused by Georgia;
  • “[T]he evidence has shown that Georgia’s water use is reasonable; and
  • “[T]he evidence has not shown that the benefits of apportionment would substantially outweigh the potential harms.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp had supported a full-throated defense of the case. Kemp issued the following statement after the report’s release. It state in full:

Judge Paul J. Kelly

Judge Paul J. Kelly

  • “We greatly appreciate Special Master Kelly’s recognition of Georgia’s strong, evidence-based case in this litigation. We will continue to be good stewards of water resources in every corner of our state, and we hope that this issue will reach a final conclusion soon.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis does not appear to have issued a statement, according to the homepage of the governor’s website, where other statements are posted.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried recommended in a statement that her state not back down from pursuing its claim for more water from Georgia.

Fried issued the following statement:

  • “Today’s ruling is a major disappointment for fair, responsible water usage on which both states depend. Georgia’s unchecked disruption of our shared waters in the Apalachicola River has devastated Florida’s oyster industry.
  • “I’m encouraging our state agencies to continue fighting to hold Georgia accountable for its water use, and to explore all legal options.”
Apalachicola, Nicoll's Outpost

A British military outpost staffed with black and white Royal Colonial Marines, who were staged to invade Georgia, was established on the eastern bank of the start of the Apalachicola River, according to this marker . Credit: David Pendered

Fried’s statement claimed a victory for the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to reject the report from the first special master and send it back for more fact-finding by a newly appointed special master. Fried’s statement observed:

  • “The U.S. Supreme Court had previously ruled in Florida’s favor in 2018, sending the case back to a federal special master.”

Katherine Zitsch, director of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, issued a statement that highlighted Georgia’s efforts to conserve water. These efforts were cited in Kelly’s report. Zitsch observed:

  • “We are pleased with Special Master Kelly’s recommendation and especially his recognition of Georgia’s significant water conservation and efficiency efforts. Since 2001, water withdrawals in metro Atlanta have dropped by 10 percent, even as our population has increased by 1.3 million. A safe, reliable supply of clean water is critical to our economy and quality of life. We are mindful that these precious resources are shared, and we remain committed to good water stewardship.”
David Pendered

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.


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