Special master recommends water ruling in Georgia's favor
By: Georgia Farm Bureau
2/22/2017 1:34:08 PM
On Feb. 14, Special Master Ralph Lancaster recommended that the Supreme Court deny Florida's petition for capping Georgia water use in the case Florida filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Florida filed the suit in 2013, asking that the court limit Georgia's use of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint River basins to 1992 levels. Florida's contention is that Georgia's overuse of water from those two rivers has harmed the oyster industry in the Apalachicola Bay on Florida's panhandle. Georgia countered with arguments that overharvesting has caused the problems encountered by Florida's oyster industry.
Lancaster found that such a cap on Georgia's use without a corresponding ruling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' activities on those rivers would not provide sufficient water to benefit Florida. The Corps of Engineers was not a party in the case, which fell under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court because it was a dispute between states. The states now have the opportunity to file written objections to the special master's report. It is anticipated that the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments before deciding whether to accept Lancaster's recommendation.
Georgia Farm Bureau (GFB) and other Georgia agricultural leaders viewed the recommendation as a positive step, but cautioned against celebrating it as a final resolution to the decades-long dispute.
"We've won one skirmish," said GFB President Gerald Long during remarks at the luncheon during GFB Day at the Capitol on Feb. 15. "There are many, many battles ahead of us. So we've got to be vigilant. We've got to be responsible as farmers on metering so we can continue to prove not only to Florida but to the rest of the nation and federal agencies that we are trying to conserve water and we're doing our part."
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black also cautioned farmers against celebrating the special master's recommendation.
While the 137-page report from Lancaster ultimately landed in Georgia's favor, the Maine attorney criticized Georgia's water use, particularly agricultural water use in Southwest Georgia, which at one reference he called "largely unrestrained."
In October 2016, GFB filed a friend of the court brief in the case, pointing out dire economic consequences of drastic reduction or elimination of irrigation in Southwest Georgia, as well as highlighting GFB's activities to promote water access and conservation.
In its brief, GFB highlighted the $2.5 billion economic impact agriculture makes to the economy of Southwest Georgia and the negative ramifications a drastic reduction or elimination of irrigation in the Flint River Basin would have on the counties in the area that have been designated by the USDA as "persistently poor" and whose economies depend on farming. The brief also highlighted the irrigation technology farmers use to conserve water such as low-pressure irrigation systems and variable rate systems.
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