Supreme Court Sides with Georgia in Florida’s Interstate Waters Suit

Justice Amy Coney Barrett delivered an Apr. 1 Supreme Court opinion concerning a dispute between states, wherein Florida blamed its upstream neighbor for the 2012 collapse of its oyster fisheries in the Apalachicola Bay near the Gulf of Mexico. According to the unanimous opinion, this is the second time in three years the states have fought over the proper apportionment of interstate waters.

In the case, over which the Supreme Court had original jurisdiction, Florida claimed that its upstream neighbor “consumes more than its fair share of water from interstate rivers in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin,” causing low flows in the Apalachicola River to severely damage Florida’s oyster fisheries and river ecosystem. In turn, Florida sought to enjoin Georgia’s allegedly excessive water use.

The opinion explained that the Supreme Court had previously disagreed with the findings made by a special master in the case and remanded it with further instructions. After supplemental briefing and oral argument, the special master found that Florida failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that “Georgia’s alleged overconsumption caused serious harm either to Florida’s oyster fisheries or to its river wildlife and plant life.” Florida subsequently filed exceptions.

In its ruling last week, the Supreme Court upheld the special master’s revised decision and overruled Florida’s exceptions. Justice Barrett wrote that while the precise causes of Florida’s oyster collapse remain the “subject of scientific debate,” the record establishes, at most, “that increased salinity and predation contributed to the collapse of Florida’s fisheries, not that Georgia’s overconsumption caused the increased salinity and predation.”

The court also found that Florida failed to prove that Georgia’s overconsumption dried essential wildlife habitat by disconnecting tributaries, swamps, and sloughs from the Apalachicola River. The special master determined that this claim was baseless in view of the record and the Supreme Court agreed. The opinion concluded that though Florida was not entitled to an injunction, it emphasized that Georgia “has an obligation to make reasonable use of Basin waters in order to help conserve that increasingly scarce resource.”