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Did Georgia just win the water war? Judge issues what could be final ruling
Buford Dam
Buford Dam sits at the base of Lake Lanier and is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Below the dam the Chattahoochee River continues southward - photo by By Scott Rogers

Georgia has won a significant — and what may be final — battle in the tri-state water wars, which has lingered for nearly three decades.

U.S. Circuit Judge Paul J. Kelly Jr., ruled against Florida in an 81-page order issued Wednesday, saying he didn’t recommend the Supreme Court grant Florida’s request for an equitable apportioning of waters in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin shared by the two states and Alabama.

“The evidence has shown that Georgia’s water use is reasonable, and the evidence has not shown that the benefits of apportionment would substantially outweigh the potential harms,” Kelly said.

The Supreme Court now will decide whether to accept Kelly’s recommendation.

Kelly was chosen by the Supreme Court to hear the case between Florida and Georgia as special master.

Florida has claimed it has suffered economic and ecological harm from Georgia’s “overconsumption of water” in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin.

Florida is asking the court to freeze Georgia's water usage at current levels in the ACF to 2050 and approve even tighter controls during droughts. The basin begins northeast of Lake Lanier and flows southwest past Atlanta into the Gulf of Mexico in Florida's Panhandle.

In a Nov. 7 hearing in New Mexico before Kelly, Florida hammered Georgia for not doing enough to limit agricultural water use in southwest Georgia as the oyster industry downstream in Apalachicola Bay collapsed.

Georgia's lead attorney spent much of his time picking apart the data sets used by Florida and insisted that Georgia's water usage was far less than Florida's estimates. He said Florida failed to meet one of the case's central questions, which was laid out by the Supreme Court in a June 2018 ruling.

The court "cannot possibly find that the benefits substantially outweigh the cost to Georgia," said Craig Primis, Georgia's attorney.

Kelly said in his ruling that Florida “has pointed to harm in the oyster fishery collapse, but I

do not find that Georgia caused that harm by clear and convincing evidence.”

The judge’s ruling drew a favorable response from Gov. Brian Kemp.

“We greatly appreciate Special Master Kelly's recognition of Georgia's strong, evidence-based case in this litigation,” he said in a statement. “We will continue to be good stewards of water resources in every corner of our state, and we hope that this issue will reach a final conclusion soon.”

The battle with Florida is the latest chapter in water litigation also involving Alabama that dates to 1990. The last critical decision was in 2012, when the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to deny requests by Alabama and Florida to review whether water supply is an authorized purpose of Lake Lanier.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. See the original story from the Gainesville Times here.