By MARGIE MENZEL
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
A year after Florida filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court in a long-running battle with Georgia over water consumption, the U.S. solicitor general has advised the high court to delay taking the case.
The lawsuit, filed at Gov. Rick Scott's behest last year, was Florida's most-recent attempt to get more freshwater flowing downstream from Georgia in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-
Florida, Georgia and Alabama share the river system and have been locked in litigation for 24 years. Florida contends that water use at the top of the system, in the metro Atlanta area, has reduced the downstream flow of freshwater to the Apalachicola Bay area, damaging Northwest Florida's critical oyster industry. Florida and Alabama have argued that too much water is siphoned off upstream for Atlanta’s drinking-water supply.
But in a filing last week, U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli wrote that while Florida's lawsuit has merit, the justices should "postpone equitable apportionment proceedings" until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes a revised master manual for operating the river system.
"Although Florida's complaint states a claim that fits squarely within this court's original jurisdiction, practical considerations counsel against this court's resolution of Florida's claims before the Corps has completed its process of revising the master manual for the ACF basin," Verrilli wrote.
The revised manual is expected to be complete in September 2015, according to Verrilli's filing, with final implementation and approval slated for March 2017.
"We are pleased that the Department of Justice has determined that this issue should be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court," Scott spokesman John Tupps said in an email Wednesday. "Unfortunately, the Army Corps of Engineers continues to stall while Florida families that rely on the Apalachicola River continue to suffer. Governor Scott will fight for these families."
The filing comes at a desperate time for the Apalachicola Bay and the oystermen who make their living on it. Florida is considering temporary closure of the bay, a development the state has been trying to prevent by gaining access to more water. On Sept. 10, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Executive Director Nick Wiley said it was "very likely that we're going to have to entertain a possible complete closure of the Apalachicola oyster harvest."
"We're going to suffer," said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association. "We're going to lose our bay."
"Time is not on Florida's side," said Chad Taylor, a member of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper board of directors. "We don't want further delays. What we want is more flows --- now."
The Corps of Engineers, which controls the flows, relies on a 2011 ruling from a federal appeals court that said Georgia has a legal right to water from Lake Lanier, at the top of the river system. The ruling overturned a federal magistrate's 2009 ruling in favor of Florida and Alabama.
Florida also has asked Congress for help in getting the Corps of Engineers to release more water downstream, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, according to Florida's lawsuit, Georgia is using more than 360 million gallons of water daily and expects that figure to nearly double to 705 million gallons daily by 2040.
"Right now the (Apalachicola) river is bouncing between one foot and three feet," Hartsfield said. "And all the reservoirs are full in Georgia."
But Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who has called the lawsuit "political theater" since it was filed, told the Gainesville Times, a Georgia newspaper, that he was encouraged by Verrilli's ruling and hoped to return to the negotiating table.