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May. 21, 2019
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Florida, Georgia answer Judge Kelly in water dispute

By Jane Harrison
 
Florida and Georgia held their arguments to the court ordered limit and managed to squeeze in the same refutations and disagreements that have kept them from settling their water disputes for years.
 
In the 20-page limit set by Special Master Paul J. Kelley, Jr., both states discredited the other’s expert witnesses and quoted evidence supporting their claim to water in three rivers that flow from north Georgia into the Florida Panhandle. The briefs, filed Jan. 31, the deadline set by Kelly, were the latest recorded activity stemming from Florida’s 2013 lawsuit blaming Georgia water use for the collapse of oyster fisheries in Apalachicola Bay.
 
Florida seeks a cap on Georgia water use and reparations for economic and ecological damage it claims were caused largely by crop irrigation in South Georgia. Florida also points a finger at Georgia’s metropolitan area and its growing needs for water.
 
The lawsuit has particular interest to metro Atlanta and Northeast Georgia, where water needs and economies are supplied by Lake Lanier, the largest reservoir on the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, Flint river basin.
 
Kelly is the second special master appointed by the Supreme Court to recommend how to decide the case. The court replaced Special Master Ralph Lancaster, now deceased, in August after remanding the case to get answers to specific questions.
 
Kelly sought to get those answers in his demand for specifics footed in already recorded evidence. Florida cited testimony that increased Georgia water use, particularly agricultural irrigation on the Flint River, choked the Apalachicola River, causing increased salinity in Apalachicola Bay which needs fresh water inflow to nourish oyster beds. The Sunshine State asserted that an increase of stream flow of 1,500 to 2,000 cubic feet per second “is reasonably likely to benefit Florida significantly.”
 
Florida claims Georgia could minimize the cost of water cutbacks to farmers by “increasing irrigation efficiency, drilling deeper irrigation wells to lower aquifers which do not affect river flow, paying farmers not to irrigate in particular years (as Georgia law already contemplates), or permanently buying back farmers’ irrigation rights for some or all of their acreage.”
 
Georgia refuted Florida’s statements, first declaring that Florida did not prove oyster mortality was influenced by flows on the Apalachicola River. It pointed to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ activity on the rivers, such as dredging the middle section of the Apalachicola, as possible cause of salinity.
 
Georgia cited evidence that “when dredging, the Corps removed sand from the bottom of the Apalachicola River and pumped it onto the floodplain forest, which ‘killed everything that lived under it.”
Additionally, Peach State attorneys asserted that Georgia’s total consumptive use in the basin is a small fraction of total stream flow and that Florida used “flawed and unreliable method” to calculate Georgia’s water use, greatly exaggerating its actual consumption.
 
Georgia further contrasted the huge economic footprint of the ACF basin in Georgia with the tiny fishing economy of Apalachicola Bay. Georgia’s brief states, “In the ACF Basin, Georgia accounts for more than 92% of population, 96% of employment and 99% of economic activity,” plus it produces $283 billion in gross revenue a year. In contrast, the Apalachicola fishing industry generates $11.7 in revenue per year and supports a population less than a fifth the size of Georgia’s in the basin.
 
Georgia concluded “capping Georgia’s water consumption in the ACF Basin would provide negligible benefits to Florida” and quoted testimony that “benefits to Florida’s oyster and blue crab industries under a cap of Georgia’s water use would be approximately $40,000.”

Posted online 2/28/19
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