Water war to end in 2020: Judge commends Georgia for conservation efforts
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.
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.
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:
- “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:
- “[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