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Jul. 22, 2019
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No date yet for oral arguments in water lawsuit

By Jane Harrison
 
As of late April, no date had been set for potential oral arguments in the Florida v. Georgia lawsuit over water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin. Supreme Court appointee Paul J. Kelly, Jr. had posted no response to Florida’s request in March for an evidentiary hearing.
 
Kelly, the second Special Master assigned to settle the water war, already told the two states he had sufficient evidence, but opened the possibility of an additional non-evidentiary hearing. The lawsuit, ongoing since Oct. 2013, has cost each state more than $40 million, amassed millions of pages of documents and digital data, and consumed countless hours in and out of court. Supreme Court justices picked Kelly to bring the matter to a conclusion after remanding the first special master’s recommendations. Special Master Ralph Lancaster, now deceased, presided over two years of discovery and a month-long evidentiary hearing before recommending the court deny Florida’s claims.
 
The Sunshine State accuses Georgia of hoarding water on the river system that serves both states and causing economic and ecological harm in Apalachicola Bay, the heart of the state’s oyster fisheries. Lake Lanier is the largest of five U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs on the rivers that run from the Georgia mountains to the Florida Panhandle. Florida covets water stored in Lanier, the major water supplier for metro-Atlanta. Florida also wants more flow from the Flint River, tapped by farmers in central and south Georgia.
 
Lancaster’s recommendations chided Georgia for unmetered water consumption on the Flint and slow enactment of conservation measures in metro-Atlanta during the 2012 drought. Nonetheless, he concluded that Florida could not prove that cutting Georgia’s water use would cure the ills downstream. He reasoned that since the Corps holds the spigot on the dams, there could be no guarantee on how much water would ultimately reach Florida. In what many perceive as a legal flaw, Florida did not include the Corps in its lawsuit.
 
Supreme Court justices indicated some sympathy for Florida and sent the matter back. Kelly got the nod as Special Master in August 2018 and immediately posed specific questions regarding Georgia’s agricultural water use on the Flint and Georgia’s conservation measures. He also asked Florida how much water it needs, how much it would cost Georgia to cut back and how much would Florida benefit from cutting Georgia’s consumption. The states’ responses and rebuttals, submitted in February, repeated the same accusations and defenses that have blocked settlement for six years.
 
In its request for oral arguments, Florida attorneys stated they would be “amenable to any argument format that the Special Master believes would be most helpful in resolving the case, but, given the magnitude of the record and number of issues … proposes allotting each party ninety minutes for an initial affirmative presentation, followed by an appropriate time for rebuttal and any further questions the Special Master may have.”
 
Georgia attorneys previously said they would support a non-evidentiary hearing to answer the special master’s questions. 

Posted online 4/29/19
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