GAINESVILLE — Georgia may hear by fall whether the U.S. Supreme Court should take on a Florida legal action alleging Georgia has harmed Apalachicola Bay by using too much water, the head of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division said Thursday.
Justices have asked the Department of Justice’s Office of Solicitor General whether the case should proceed, and it usually takes the office six to nine months to give its opinion, Jud Turner said at a luncheon meeting of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.
“I think we have a strong argument,” he said. “If we don’t prevail at this stage, there will be other hurdles before you get to a full trial on the merits.”
Florida filed the suit Oct. 1, drawing out what has been a 20-year water-sharing conflict between Georgia, Alabama and Florida, often referred to as “water wars.”
Much of the debate has focused on Lake Lanier, which serves as a chief drinking water source for metro Atlanta.
A couple of months earlier, Florida Gov. Rick Scott vowed to sue following a U.S. Senate field hearing where lawmakers heard about the impact that drought and reduced water flows had on Apalachicola Bay.
“This lawsuit will be targeted toward one thing — fighting for the future of Apalachicola,” Scott said at the time.
Georgia fired back in a 126-page response filed in late January, saying Florida’s suit “seeks to bypass” the Army Corps of Engineers’ work on a master water control manual for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin, which straddles the three states.
“Florida has brought its case against the wrong party, in the wrong court and at the wrong time,” Georgia’s response states.
Still, Turner said he’s always concerned by a “court sitting in equity.”
“There’s likely something ... some judge might find we need to do differently,” he said. “My other fear is we’ve achieved all these results and ... the Supreme Court [could] have a tendency to chill the corps.”
A draft of the corps’ environmental assessments related to the water manual could be released by next summer, Turner said.
The manual update could be completed by the end of 2015, he added.