Supreme Court rejects Florida fisheries case in water fight with Georgia

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court unanimously rejected Florida’s arguments Thursday in a fisheries dispute over how much river water Georgia consumes.

Florida had argued that Georgia was consuming more than its fair share of water from rivers in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which hurt the Sunshine State’s oysters and other fisheries.

But special masters – legal experts who assisted the high court in reviewing the evidence presented in the dispute – recommended denying Florida’s claim for lack of proof that Georgia’s alleged overconsumption caused serious harm.

The court, in an opinion written by Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, overruled Florida’s objections and dismissed the case.

“In short, Florida has not met the exacting standard necessary to warrant the exercise of this Court’s extraordinary authority to control the conduct of a coequal sovereign,” Barrett wrote in the 10-page decision. “We emphasize that Georgia has an obligation to make reasonable use of Basin waters in order to help conserve that increasingly scarce resource.”

Apalachicola is known for its oysters. Enjoy them at the local restaurants or have some shipped home for later. (Photo:

The case marked the second time in three years that the high court has rejected Florida’s claims. Florida initially filed the case in 2013, after a regional drought.

The dispute deals with 20,000-square-mile region spanning Georgia, Florida and Alabama. The Chattahoochee River, a major source of water for Atlanta, and the Flint River each begin in Georgia and flow into Lake Seminole, which straddles the border with Florida.

The Apalachicola River starts at the lake, flows through the Florida panhandle and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The river supports a variety of wildlife and plant life, and the supply of fresh water makes Apalachicola Bay a good habitat for oysters.

But the court found many factors affect water flowing into the bay. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulates the flow by storing and releasing water from bays.

Georgia argued that Florida mismanaged its fisheries, with unprecedented oyster harvesting in the years before the drought.

Florida provided evidence from local oystermen and a state official about higher salt content in the water, reports by a state agency and a fisheries disaster declaration from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

But Florida needed to prove injury of “serious magnitude” caused by Georgia’s consumption, a greater burden than a private party seeking an injunction, Barrett explained in the opinion. Florida couldn’t prove that damage to the fisheries resulted from Georgia’s consumption, the high court ruled.

“Considering the record as a whole, Florida has not shown that it is ‘highly probable’ that Georgia’s alleged overconsumption played more than a trivial role in the collapse of Florida’s oyster fisheries,” Barrett wrote.

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