Justices give Florida narrow win in water fight with Georgia

June 27, 2018 - 11:53 am

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Wednesday gave Florida another chance to make the case that Georgia uses too much water and leaves too little for its southern neighbor.

The justices' 5-4 ruling extends an already long-running dispute between the two states. The fight is over Georgia's use of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers that serve booming metro Atlanta and Georgia's powerful agricultural industry.

The court said that a special master appointed to hear the lawsuit should reconsider Florida's argument that limiting how much water Georgia uses would provide more for the Apalachicola River that flows into Apalachicola Bay and the nearby Gulf of Mexico.

"Five of us believe that the special master, as Florida said, did apply too strict a standard and that under a proper standard, Florida did adequately show that relief may be possible," Justice Stephen Breyer said in announcing the opinion. "We hold that the master should go on to make further factual findings in the case, such as whether Georgia is, in fact, using too much Flint River water, and if so, whether Florida could benefit significantly from a cap on Georgia's use of that water."

Breyer was joined in his opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

In announcing the decision Wednesday, on the last day of the Supreme Court's term before summer recess, Breyer said that if the public wishes to "learn something of the beauty and emotional appeal of this southeastern river basin," he could recommend songs: Alan Jackson's song "Chattahoochee" or Bing Crosby and Bob Hope performing "Apalachicola, Fla."

But he said if "you wish to learn about water rights" and "equitable apportionment of river water among states" he'd recommend reading the opinions in the case.

The special master the court appointed to hear the lawsuit had recommended that the court side with Georgia and reject Florida's call for limiting water consumption from the Flint river. Justice Clarence Thomas, who grew up in Georgia, wrote that he would have sided with Georgia.

"In the final analysis, Florida has not shown that it will appreciably benefit from a cap on Georgia's water use," Thomas wrote in a dissent for himself and Justices Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch.

Though the decision in the case was 5-4, the justices did not split along ideological lines, with two conservative justices joining three liberal justices in the majority and Kagan, a liberal, joining three conservatives in dissent.

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