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Jul. 22, 2017
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States await decision on water war

By Jane Harrison

As the final days of 2016 neared, Georgia and Florida water warriors awaited words from the Solomon tasked with deciding how much of the life sustaining flow each should get. Special Master Ralph Lancaster wrapped up more than 80 hours of testimony in a Maine federal courtroom Dec. 1 with his usual admonition: “Please settle this blasted thing.”  
 
The Supreme Court appointee told Florida and Georgia attorneys the recommendations he would ponder “over Christmas” could make them both blue: “I can guarantee you that at least one of you is going to be unhappy with my recommendation, and perhaps both of you. You can’t both be winners. You can both be losers.”
 
The court is expected to lean on Lancaster’s rationale before eventually ruling on the 2013 Florida lawsuit that accuses Georgia of over consuming water on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system shared by the two states. Lake Lanier is the ACF’s largest reservoir. Georgia river watchdogs attending portions of the evidentiary hearing observed a battle of hydrologists and environmentalists.
 
“I think (Florida) has a tough road,” said Chattahoochee Riverkeeper staff attorney Kevin Jeselnik, who heard Florida testimony the first week of the month-long trial. Florida must prove that Georgia’s alleged overuse of water caused environmental and ecological damage downstream and that capping Georgia’s consumption would end its water woes. He said that despite Florida’s attempts to prove that Georgia caused the collapse of Apalachicola’s oyster industry in 2012, Georgia countered “at every turn” with evidence of problems with Florida water practices. “Georgia would point back to Florida and say, ‘you had a role in this too, you’re hands aren’t clean.’ ”
 
Florida struggled under a high burden to make its case, Jeselnik said, “but, Georgia certainly didn’t come away looking totally innocent.” Evidence suggested Georgia lacks oversight in agricultural water withdrawals and that it can conserve more. “I don’t think (the special master) will let Georgia off the hook,” Jeselnik speculated.
 
Chris Manganiello, CRK water policy director, noted Florida focused much of its attack on Georgia farm irrigation along the Flint River. Florida accused Georgia of allowing illegal irrigation on 90,000 acres and utilizing wasteful irrigation practices. Manganiello mentioned that during the trial, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal suddenly created a task force on irrigation compliance, an attempt he speculated to “get the house in order.”
 
The Special Master will also peruse a U.S. Justice Department brief on the Corps of Engineers ACF Water Control Manual.
 
 
States, U.S. summarize key points

Among Florida’s claims:
  • Georgia has ignored the need for more aggressive conservation for decades.
  • Georgia’s water consumption has altered the ACF hydrology and ecosystem and damaged community economies.
  • Eliminating illegal irrigation on 90,000 acres and prohibiting wasteful irrigational practices along Flint River would increase water to Florida.
  • Fixing municipal and industrial leaks and restricting outdoor watering would reduce Georgia’s consumption.
  • Amendments to Georgia’s irrigation practices, leak repairs, and more aggressive conservation in drought would not cost Georgia billions of dollars or cause the “nightmare scenario” as Georgia predicts.

 
Among Georgia’s claims:
  • Increased flows on the Flint River do not lead the U.S. Corps of Engineers to release more water into Florida.
  • A consumption cap would not lead to greater flow to Florida in drought.
  • Georgia water use did not cause oyster industry collapse.
  • Florida’s proposed remedies would impose “staggering costs” on Georgia without solving Florida’s woes. The cost could total more than $800 million per year, including lost economic activity and agricultural-related jobs, plus perhaps billions of dollars for new wastewater infrastructure.


From U.S. Department of Justice post trial brief in reference to the ACF Water Control Manual:

  • A cap on Georgia’s consumption, particularly on the Flint River, unregulated by the Corps, might plausibly increase the amount of water flowing into Florida when the Corps is operating to match basin inflows. It is plausible that increased flow during wet times would provide a cushion during low-flow periods to possibly maintain a specified greater flow rate for a longer period of time without any alteration of the Corps’ operations.
  • Reductions in consumption on the Flint River would not be likely to adversely affect the Corps’ operations, and could – depending on the amount – have beneficial impacts on the system by making more water available for various purposes during times of low flow.
  • The United States takes no position on whether Florida has proved that a consumption cap would produce enough additional basin inflow at the right times to redress Florida’s alleged harm and justify the cost of imposing a consumption cap in this case.

(Note: The U.S. is not a party to the lawsuit and submitted its amicus brief for the Special Master’s consideration.)
 
- compiled by Jane Harrison

 Posted Online 12/28/16
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