On Monday, January 27, the United States Supreme Court issued a notice granting both Florida and Georgia 45 days to respond to a special master recommendation recently issued by New Mexico-based federal Tenth Circuit Judge Paul Kelly, as well as time to address each other’s arguments in subsequent legal briefs.

The notice sets the stage for the justices to potentially hear the case later this spring or more likely, according to Court observers, in their next term that begins in October, 2020. The Court could also decide the 7-year-old case, Florida v. Georgia, without further oral arguments depending on the parties’ submissions. Florida sought to limit Georgia’s water usage in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin, where the Chattahoochee River transects Alabama and Georgia, the Flint River flows through rich South Georgia farmland, and the combined flows into the Apalachicola River ultimately reaches Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The headwaters of the basin within Lake Lanier serve as the main source of drinking water for a majority of metro Atlanta and irrigates farms in southwest Georgia, providing an economic impact to Georgia estimated to be $13.8 billion.

Judge Kelly’s recommendation in December was a major step forward for Georgia in the long-running dispute, which has incurred nearly $50 million in defense costs to combat efforts to curtail water availability. This is not unfamiliar territory for Georgia who previously sought to hold onto a favorable procedural ruling by a prior special master, Ralph Lancaster. However, the Court wanted its new special master to address matters on the merits and the Court now has that substantive ruling before it. Special Master Kelly wrote that “the evidence has shown that Georgia’s water use is reasonable” and that the evidence did not support a finding that the benefits of capping the state’s water usage as Florida had asked would outweigh the economic harms to Georgia.

Questions may be directed to William Droze.