“My observation sitting there, listening to the questioning, led me to believe you’re going to see some changes from the status quo,” said Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson. “And any changes from the status quo is good for Florida.”
WASHINGTON D.C. — Florida lawyers fared well in last week's U.S. Supreme Court hearing on the “water wars” between the state and Georgia, officials who sat through the hearing said.
Rep. Neal Dunn, who was among them, said he felt Florida has a real shot of winning the case.
“I think Florida’s attorneys did pretty well,” Dunn said in a telephone interview. “Georgia came off some pretty harsh questioning - a lot of harsh interrogatories, and a lot of apparent disbelief on the part of the justices in what they were hearing from Georgia.”
The U.S. Supreme Court only heard arguments Jan. 8, and will make a decision at a later date in the decades-old legal fight between Florida and Georgia over water flow into the Apalachicola River.
The “water wars” case is the most recent development in a decades-old dispute questioning who has the right to the water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin — upstream Georgia or downstream Florida — and how much water is an “equitable apportionment” for each state.
Hanging in the balance is water Georgia says it needs to supply the sprawling Atlanta metropolis, irrigate crops and prevent a projected $18 billion hit to the state’s economy. Meanwhile, Florida says a steady supply of water is the last chance for Apalachicola Bay’s struggling oyster industry and endangered species.
A court-appointed special master ruled in February that Florida had not proved its case that a water-usage cap should be imposed on Georgia to help the river and Apalachicola Bay, one of the most productive estuaries in the country, known particularly for its oysters.
In a brief asking the Supreme Court to uphold the special master’s report, Georgia said Florida is asking for “dramatic and costly reductions in Georgia’s upstream water use — cuts that threaten the water supply of 5 million people in metropolitan Atlanta and risk crippling a multibillion-dollar agricultural sector in southwest Georgia.”
“One of the arguments Georgia made was that even if they had extra water to give to Florida, it wouldn’t help Florida,” Dunn said. “And the justices clearly did not believe that.”
Dunn said even if the Supreme Court rules against Florida there are always other options to address the issue, such as Congressional action, but he is focusing on the court case for now.
“Congress can always do something, but it is harder for a committee of 435 to do something than committee of nine," Dunn said. “If we have to go back to the drawing board, we will.”
Dan Tonsmeire, the riverkeeper for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper organization that works to protect the river and bay, also was in attendance at the Supreme Court hearing, said Florida “held its own today.”
“I think Florida (attorneys) did a great job of answering the questions that the justices posed to them, and I didn’t think that Georgia or the (Army) Corps’ attorney had good answers for the questions that the justices were asking them,” Tonsmeire said. “But I don’t know that means they’ll decide in our favor, but it made our case look better in my eyes.”
Tonsmeire said the declining water supply in Apalachicola Bay is hurting the entire ecosystem in the region and has decimated the oyster industry.
“It’s drying out our flood plane forests and it is causing the decimation of the oyster beds, loss of shrimp, blue crabs and fish,” he said. “It is hurting the entire eco-system of the bay and it will eventually hurt the fisheries in the gulf.”
Mike Thomas, Panama City Beach mayor who owns an oyster bar on the beach, said oyster sales have been declining in recent years with the ongoing degradation of the Apalachicola oyster habitat.
“People have been raised, and rightfully so, to believe Apalachicola always produced the best oyster,” Thomas said. “I don’t think people eat as many as they used to because some of oyster beds genuinely aren’t as good. The ones we get are not as flavorable as they used to be.”
Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson, and City Attorney Pat Floyd said they were encouraged by how the court hearing went.
“My observation sitting there, listening to the questioning, led me to believe you’re going to see some changes from the status quo,” said Johnson. “And any changes from the status quo is good for Florida.”
The city has been an active party on behalf of the state’s water wars litigation for more than a decade. The state’s legal team, led by attorney Gregory Garre, from Latham & Watkins, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, reviewed strategy with the city officials prior to the hearing.
Floyd said Garre reminded the justices that the arguments reviewed by Special Master Ralph Lancaster for his Feb. 2017 ruling had been enhanced in a later filing by the Army Corps of Engineers, which had not been named as a party in the suit.
“Greg mentioned that the Corps of Engineers had established that their position is that if the Supreme Court gave them the direction, they would take that into account,” Floyd said.
Garre said the justices considered evidence from Apalachicola oyster dealer Tommy Ward about the negative effect of having too much saltwater in the estuary on oysters.
“We could tell the justices were of the same kind of thought we were arguing about, that there’s damage and you’re the one who caused the damage and can’t you agree that putting the water down to Apalachicola Bay is a beneficial improvement?” Floyd said.
David Adlerstein of the Apalachicola Times contributed to this report.