Alabama isn’t joining Florida in water fight with Georgia

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Alabama says it doesn’t need to be involved in a legal fight between Florida and Georgia over water, unlike earlier disputes when Alabama usually fought alongside Florida in cases involving the three states.

Florida filed a lawsuit in 2013 asking the U.S. Supreme Court to allocate water in the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint rivers between Florida and Georgia and to cap Georgia’s water use. Florida says Georgia is sucking up more water from the rivers, harming oysters in Apalachicola Bay and the seafood industry there.

Georgia says Florida’s lawsuit should be dismissed because the federal government wasn’t named as a party in the case. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates hydropower dams and reservoirs along the Chattahoochee River that regulate water flowing into Florida.

But Georgia’s motion also prompted Ralph I. Lancaster, the court-appointed special master in the case, to question during an April 7 conference call whether Alabama also should be included in the court case. Although lawyers representing Florida and Georgia both said the case could be resolved without Alabama, Lancaster requested that briefs be filed.

Alabama and Florida often were allies in federal litigation after 1990 as they battled the Corps of Engineers in court over operation of its reservoirs and sought to curb Georgia’s water use. But Florida, in its 2013 lawsuit, said its dispute is with Georgia and Alabama didn’t need to be involved.

In an amicus curiae brief filed Friday, Alabama’s lawyers wrote that original actions before the Supreme Court, such as Florida’s lawsuit, take considerable time and consume “scarce” state resources.

“The two states that already are parties do not believe that a third needs to take part, and Alabama itself has made the careful decision not to enter this particular fray at this particular time,” Alabama’s lawyers wrote. “It (Alabama) instead is focusing on other fora (forums) where it believes it can protect its interests.”

Alabama’s brief did not say what other forums the state is focusing on. Spokespersons for Gov. Robert Bentley and Attorney General Luther Strange did not respond to queries requesting details.

Only 15 percent of the area drained by the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint rivers lies within Alabama — and most of the 2.6 million population is in the river basin is in the metro Atlanta area. Florida occupies slightly less of the river basin than Alabama.

But Alabama also says it has made investments in shipping facilities along the Chattahoochee River that depend on water and that decreased water flows also could hurt tourism and recreation on reservoirs. The Farley nuclear plant near Dothan, the MeadWestvaco paper packaging plant in Cottonton, Ala., and cities along the Chattahoochee River also could be hurt, Alabama said.

“Alabama has substantial interests” in the river basin and reserves its right to get involved later if “Alabama’s relationship to this action is different from what it currently perceives,” the state’s lawyers said.

Alabama’s lawyers also said Florida’s case appears to hinge on whether the federal government must be a party in the case.

In earlier-filed Supreme Court documents, Georgia said Florida’s own mismanagement of water allowed oysters to be over-harvested and caused the collapse, although University of Florida scientists disagree.

Georgia also argues that the case cannot proceed because the federal government, as manager of reservoirs and dams that control water flow, is a “required party” that was excluded from Florida from the case.

Florida says it is not seeking minimum flows, rather a cap on Georgia’s water use. Therefore, Florida says, the federal government is not a required party in the case.

Copyrighted and reprinted with permission of Bruce Ritchie/FloridaEnvironments.com

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