The tri-state water wars continue to divide the Southeast as litigation moves forward. In Georgia, two river basins supply water to metropolitan Atlanta—the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin which flows through Georgia, Florida, and Alabama and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) River Basin which runs through Georgia and Alabama. Litigation is pending over water allocation for both the ACF and the ACT basins.
Litigation is pending over the ACF basin in the Nation’s highest court between the states of Florida and Georgia. The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear the interstate dispute and decide what an “equitable apportionment” of the flow of the ACF basin should be.
The ACF basin covers the southwest portion of Georgia and is the point where all three rivers meet to flow into the Gulf of Mexico. Florida alleges that Georgia’s use and storage of the upstream waters from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers has caused declines in Florida’s fisheries and shrunk the available riverine and estuarine habitats in the Apalachicola River. Florida has asked the Supreme Court to cap Georgia’s water use at the level that existed in 1992.
As requested by Florida, on November 19, 2014, the Supreme Court appointed special master Ralph Lancaster to the dispute. As special master, Lancaster has the authority to conduct an evidentiary hearing and exercise the Supreme Court’s power to compel, take, and record evidence. While Lancaster does not have the authority to decide the case, he will make a recommendation which the Court has the discretion to accept or reject.
Lancaster is an attorney in Maine who is currently Of Counsel at Pierce Atwood LLP. Lancaster has a wide range of prior litigation experience including personal injury, business disputes, and criminal defense work. The 84-year-old and Harvard Law School graduate is the first person to be appointed as a special master four times by the US Supreme Court to govern interstate disputes, including a previous water allocation dispute between Maryland and Virginia.
In 2003, Lancaster was appointed as the special master between Maryland and Virginia regarding the appropriation of the Potomac River. Virginia wished to divert water from the Potomac river for use in Virginia without being subject to regulation by Maryland. Lancaster reviewed evidence submitted by both states and ultimately concluded, after three years, that Maryland did not have the authority to regulate Virginia’s water rights based on the language found in a compact from 1785 and an 1877 award. Lancaster’s recommended ruling for Virginia was ultimately followed by the Court.
Lancaster’s role as special master in the Florida – Georgia water dispute is expected to last several years as the parties gather evidence and Lancaster forms his recommendations.
In November of 2014, Georgia, the Atlanta Regional Commission, and the Cobb County – Marietta Water Authority filed suit in the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia against the US Army Corps of Engineers concerning the water allocation of the ACT basin. The litigation was prompted by the Corps development a water control manual for Lake Allatoona , a source of water for the state of Georgia. The Corps manual did not address Georgia’s growing water supply needs.