PORTLAND, Maine — Lawyers for Georgia and Florida clashed on Monday in a long-running dispute over water rights in the watershed including Lake Lanier, with Florida blaming low river flows for imperiling fisheries and Georgia denying responsibility and saying water restrictions could imperil its economy.
Florida attorney Phil Perry said the Sunshine State’s neighbor flip-flopped and now claims that “Florida’s harms are imaginary and that Georgia has no responsibility.”
Georgia’s attorney suggested other factors including a dam and dredging in Florida are to blame for devastating the oyster industry in an Apalachicola Bay estuary.
“Florida is asking the court to put (Georgia residents) at the risk of significant hardship for no good reason,” attorney Craig Primis said.
The attorneys began laying out their cases to a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Portland, Maine’s largest city, more than 1,000 miles away from the Southeast.
The dispute focuses on the watershed that includes Lake Lanier and stretches down through western Georgia, eastern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. The Chattahoochee and Flint rivers flow through Georgia and meet at the Florida border to form the Apalachicola River, which flows into the Apalachicola Bay.
Alabama, which could enter the legal fray, has sided with Florida, encouraging a cap on Georgia’s use.
Special master Ralph Lancaster, who has tried without success to get the states to settle their dispute, will make a decision after the trial, which is expected to last more than a month. The U.S. Supreme Court will have the final say after reviewing his findings.
The proceeding’s significance was underscored by attorneys and spectators numbering 60, so many that extra chairs were taken into the courtroom. Among those watching were Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Steverson and the mayor of tiny Apalachicola, Van Johnson Sr.
Florida has blamed booming metropolitan Atlanta and the agriculture industry in southwest Georgia for siphoning away more than the state’s fair share of water, causing the fresh water flow to dry up and increasing the salinity of Florida’s Apalachicola Bay.
The decreased water flow has killed endangered mussels and stranded fish, harmed tupelo and cypress trees and caused a die-off of oysters, Perry said.
But Primis contended that Georgia consumes only a small portion of the water flowing from the river and that without clear and convincing proof it doesn’t make sense to imperil the state’s economy and drinking water in the flawed hope it could help a small number of people in Florida.
And he took umbrage at the suggestion that Georgia has a poor record of managing the water resource, saying Georgia “emphatically rejects the suggestion that it has not been a good steward of water.”
Johnson said 800 fishing families are suffering in a county of 11,000 residents, tiny compared with suburban Atlanta. But, he said, they’re real people whose livelihoods depend on the environment even if their numbers are small compared with Georgia and its multi-billion-dollar economy.
“Our environment is our economy,” Johnson said. “When you damage the environment, then our economy suffers. We’re just withering on the vine trying to survive.”