Large irrigation equipment sits idle on a farm not far from Lake Seminole in south Georgia, where water flows in from the Flint River before flowing into the Apalachicola River in Florida. (Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder)

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The U.S. Supreme Court handed Georgia a major win Thursday in its long-running water battle with Florida, overturning a 2013 lawsuit that threatened to cap Georgia’s ability to tap into river water that irrigates crops and quenches metro Atlanta’s thirst.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

“The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision is a resounding victory for Georgia and a vindication of years-long effort by multiple governors and attorneys general here in the Peach State to protect our citizens’ water rights,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a Tuesday statement. “Our state will continue to wisely manage water resources and prioritize conservation, while also protecting Georgia’s economy and access to water.”

The question at the center of the case was whether Georgia’s water use contributed to the decimation of Florida’s Apalachicola Bay oyster fisheries a decade ago. The justices ruled that Florida’s argument is not persuasive.

“Considering the record as a whole, Florida has not shown that it is ‘highly probable’ that Georgia’s alleged overconsumption played more than a trivial role in the collapse of Florida’s oyster fisheries,” the decision says. “Florida therefore has failed to carry its burden of proving causation by clear and convincing evidence.”

Attorneys representing Florida pointed to southwest Georgia farmers as the culprits for smaller oyster harvest. They argued this water use overtaxed the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which covers an area over 19,000 square miles from northeast Georgia southward into the Florida panhandle and part of eastern Alabama, upsetting the delicate natural balance of brackish water the mollusks need to grow.

Georgia argued that Florida’s oysters were struggling after loosened regulations on oyster harvesting that followed fears of contamination after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which didn’t materialize. Oyster harvests broke records in 2011 and 2012.

Georgia also argued that Florida failed to properly prepare its oyster bars with the shells of harvested oysters, a process called reshelling that helps create new habitats for young oysters.

Evidence presented in the court showed Florida reshelled a total of 180 acres of oyster fisheries in the 10 years leading up to the collapse, while an expert recommended the state reshell 200 acres each year.

Justices dismissed Florida’s case in a unanimous decision authored by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, ruling that Florida did not demonstrate Georgia was responsible for the damage.

Georgia Farm Bureau Public Policy Director Jeffrey Harvey called the decision vindication for Georgia’s farmers.

“We are very pleased with the ruling from the Supreme Court today, acknowledging what we’ve known for a long time, that farmers have always been excellent stewards of water and our natural resources,” he said. “Access to water is critical for Georgia’s No. 1 industry, agriculture, which provides food and fiber to our state and nation.”

Republican strategist Brian Robinson, who watched the water wars up close as former Gov. Nathan Deal’s spokesman, said his only regret is that the win took so long.

“It confirms the irrefutable truth that Georgia is a good steward of our water, that we put the water back into the Chattahoochee, back into the basin,” he said. “The argument that we are committing some act of economic terrorism on the Florida panhandle is laughable. It should never have gone on this long. We would be years into a new deal and everybody would have saved their tens of millions of dollars if Florida had just done the right thing in the first place.”

Before the water wars can truly be over, Georgia, Florida and Alabama will need to come to a water-sharing agreement.

But despite the big decision, the area will continue to be the focus for legal action, said Gil Rogers, director of the Georgia office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“This case has been dismissed, but it’s not the end of the litigation overall in this river basin,” he said. “There is at least one other case that’s pending right now in the federal district court here in Atlanta concerning the way the Army Corps of Engineers is operating its dams in the Chattahoochee. So it’s not the last word on the conflict.”

Rogers said Georgia has been doing a better job of managing its water, but state leaders should not take this win as a cue to become complacent.

“We’re adding population, we’re stressing our water resources with use for drinking water and for industry and for agriculture, and we’ve got more frequent droughts and different rainfall patterns than we had even just a couple of decades ago,” he said. “So it’s a challenging dynamic, and it’s not one that you ever really solve. You just have to keep prioritizing it and making sure that our policies promote water conservation, reduce waste and really prioritize healthy stream flows.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business...