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Water war to end in 2020: Judge commends Georgia for conservation efforts

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

Editor’s Note: This is the third of four stories this week that look at topics likely to appear on devices and news platforms in metro Atlanta in 2020.

By David Pendered

However the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the case of the Georgia-Florida water war, Georgia’s basic framework for conserving water is already in place. The low-flow devices and practices put in place since 2002 were commended in a judge’s recommendation that the court dismiss Florida’s claim.

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

The judge sent his recommendation to the Supreme Court following his determination that was released on Dec. 11, 2019. Justices, before their term ends in June, are expected to agree with or reject the recommendation. A ruling would close a chapter of interstate litigation that started in 1990 over a shared natural resource.

If justices agree, Georgia will not be required to reduce the amount of water it takes from the river basin that runs from Lake Lanier to Florida’s Apalachicola Bay, at the Gulf of Mexico.

The judge commended Georgia for five conservation efforts that have been followed by residents in metro Atlanta.

The modern toilet is one measure the judge cited – the kind of toilet that earns its purchasers a rebate for low water flow. Considering only metro Atlanta, modern toilets save a total of 2.4 million gallons of water a day, based on the current count of more than 135,000 such toilets installed since 2008, according to a report by the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District.

The rebate can be significant. In Atlanta, for instance, a $100 rebate is available for WaterSense-labeled toilets that use 1.1 gallon per flush, or less. Big box stores now sell such toilets, as well as some that qualify for a $50 rebate because they use more water.

apalachicola-chattahoochee-flint river basin

The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing a recommendation that Georgia not be compelled to reduce the amount of water consumed in the area marked in blue, the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin. Credit: Special Master Ralph Lancaster’s recommendation

The judge’s ruling reads a bit like the proud comments of area civic boosters, who have mostly stopped discussing the water conservation efforts that took time to implement. The judge observed in his ruling:

  • “To name a few measures, Metro Atlanta (1) requires the use of conservation pricing, (2) has a water loss auditing and leak-detection program, (3) mandates that all new multifamily buildings have “sub-meters” for each unit, (4) has replaced more than 110,000 inefficient toilets since 2008, and (5) runs campaigns to educate people on conservation and efficient water use.
  • “Georgia has also implemented statewide conservation measures. These conservation measures appear to have been quite effective. Georgia’s consumption [from the river basin for municipal and industrial use] has not increased from 1994 to 2013, despite population growth from 3.3 million to more than 4.9 million people.”

The judge’s ruling highlights Georgia’s efforts to conserve water used to irrigate crops. Three such measures are:

  • Requiring permits issued after March 1, 2006 to have tighter control over center-pivot systems; for systems to be maintained to prevent leaks; and to have rain-gage shut-off switches for traveler, solid set, or drip irrigation systems;
  • In 2012, Georgia issued a moratorium on new requests, and requests for additional water usage, from the Floridan Aquifer and surface waters in the Flint River basin;
  • By Jan. 1 of 2020, all center-pivot system must achieve 80 percent efficiency in a large portion of the Flint River basin, according to Georgia’s 2014 amendment of the Flint River Drought Protection Act.

In reaching his conclusion, the judge blamed Florida, not Georgia, for the collapse of the oyster fishery at Apalachicola Bay by 2012. The Deepwater Horizon oil disaster of 2010 had a role, according to the ruling.

Florida officials feared the loss of the bay’s oyster beds to oil pollution from the BP disaster. They authorized harvests not seen since record-keeping began 1986, wiping out populations of adult oysters and oysters that were too small to be harvested legally, the judge wrote:

apalachicola bay, oyster beds

Florida authorized a harvest that resulted in the depletion of oyster beds, marked in beige, in Apalachicola Bay in an attempt to reap the oysters before they were damaged by oil drifting toward the bay from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. Credit: Special Master Ralph Lancaster’s recommendation

  • “Florida lifted various harvesting restrictions in the Bay, and the oyster harvests in 2011 and 2012 were significantly higher than any previous harvests since 1986, when Florida began collecting data consistently….
  • “In 2011, 2.81 million pounds were harvested, and 2012 saw an even greater harvest of 3.03 million pounds. … For reference, the total harvest only ever exceeded 2.5 million pounds in three other years between 1986 and 2012….
  • “Not only was the total harvest especially large, but many of the oysters harvested were smaller than the size that could be harvested legally. … Both mature and juvenile oyster populations declined simultaneously, which is indicative of fishing pressure as the cause.”

The case involves Florida claim in a lawsuit that Georgia uses too much of the water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin. Florida contends the consequence is a lack of enough river water flowing into the Apalachicola Bay to promote the fishery. The recommendation was issued by a special master appointed by the Supreme Court to consider the merits of Florida’s claim and present a recommendation. The special master, U.S. Circuit Judge Paul J. Kelly, Jr., concluded his 96-page report with three statements that reject Florida’s contention:

Lady Louise, 2016, apalachicola

The Lady Louise, the more distant boat, appears headed for the bottom of a tributary of the Apalachicola River in October 2016 – four years after oyster beds were depleted. File/Credit: David Pendered

  • “[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.”

The Supreme Court appointed Kelly to handle the case after rejecting in 2018 a prior recommendation from a previous special master, Ralph Lancaster. The court ruled that Lancaster had applied “too strict a standard” in concluding that Florida had failed to prove its case that the court should decide how much water Georgia could consume from the ACF river basin.

The series: Monday – Shaping the News in 2020: Predictions for journalism; Tuesday – Atlanta’s internal audits in 2020: Expect to be surprised; Wednesday – Water war to end in 2020: Supreme Court to issue ruling; Thursday – Mobility in 2020: Region’s long-range plan, Atlanta’s Vision Zero



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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1 Comment

  1. Steve Williams January 15, 2020 8:47 am

    Great Article and thanks for covering the issue so many seem to have so little concern about. The Metro Water district is doing and incredible job and has been key to the success of this and other laws suits related to water in Georgia, however as a long time member of the Districts Basin Advisory Committee and a water conservation professional I do think more can and should be done. I see water loss everywhere I go. Most buildings have maintenance issue and many need upgrades some are minimal. The return on the investment is incredible. The City’s water ordinance will be help full once implemented, but we could do more. If we have another major drought we will all feel the pain and it will happen. One thing that could help would for the state to share some of the money they are paying the lawyers with the North Ga Metro Water District and the other Basin Districts through out the state to allow them to be more effective in their work. If your readers would like to learn more about water http://pluvialsolutions.infoReport


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