Nobody, not even those directly involved (especially those directly involved), could possibly have believed the water litigation between Georgia and Florida would be wrapped up and ready for a Supreme Court ruling by the May 4 deadline.
It wasn’t. But while there’s nothing new in the dispute itself, David Pendered of the Saporta Report online business journal reports a couple of factors that could tip the scales one way or the other.
That dispute, of course, is over the allocation of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin — primarily the Chattahoochee — and Florida’s contention that Georgia, meaning mostly metro Atlanta and its primary reservoir at Lake Lanier, is hoarding too much of it upstream and letting too little of it get down to the Florida panhandle and the Gulf of Mexico. There is also concern about depletion of the Flint from middle and south Georgia irrigation.
Ralph Lancaster, the Maine attorney appointed by the high court to serve as a special master in the dispute, heard months of arguments and testimony from, and for, both states. His recommendation to the Supreme Court, which the justices can accept in full or in part, or disregard altogether, was in one sense an obvious win for the defense: Lancaster would not urge the court to rule in Florida’s favor, meaning he was not recommending that Georgia be ordered to release more water downriver. But, as Pendered reports, Lancaster also didn’t recommend a ruling in Georgia’s favor.
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So what exactly does that mean — not just for north Georgia and north Florida, but for all of us in between, including east Alabama?
It means Lancaster is calling attention to a significant reality that has been pointed out before: The water in question, as Pendered writes, “is at the total control of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its management of five dams along the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin.”
It is a well-publicized fact that the Corps has been revising river flow control manuals not updated for more than 60 years. Yet Florida, in its initial 2013 filing with the Supreme Court, specifically (and curiously) excluded the Corps from the suit.
A month before the May 4 deadline, Florida requested an extension to prepare responses, and Georgia did not object. The timing, as Pendered points out, is interesting: The extension was requested April 6; the eight-member Supreme Court granted it on April 7; and Neil Gorsuch was sworn in as the ninth justice on April 10. Given that both states are OK with the timetable, it’s doubtful either considers the new configuration of the court a factor, but who knows?
The deadline for final replies to motions in the suit is now (at least for now) Aug. 30. The court usually ends its session in early summer, and will not convene again until Oct. 1.
The question is whether the decisions that really matter will come from the court or the Corps.