December 27, 2018

Florida v. Georgia: The Supreme Court weighs in on the struggle over the Appalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin

William L. Andreen

It seems that the struggle over how to apportion rights to the shared waters of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin will never end. After 30 years, seven lawsuits, years of unsuccessful negotiation, and a failed interstate compact, the U.S. Supreme Court finally waded into the dispute this past summer. Florida v. Georgia, 585 U.S. ___ (2018). Rather than resolving the matter, though, the Court in a five-to-four decision returned the case to a Special Master for findings and conclusions on five specific issues. Thus, the battle over the waters is likely to continue for some time.

The case

In 2013, Florida sought to invoke the original jurisdiction of the Court to equitably apportion the waters of the ACF basin. Florida, the downstream state, alleged that the upstream state, Georgia, had reduced the water flowing to the Apalachicola River to such an extent that the oyster fishery in Apalachicola Bay and a number of threatened species had been harmed by the resulting low flow conditions. Florida, thus, sought a cap on Georgia’s depletive water uses. The Court assumed jurisdiction and appointed Ralph Lancaster as Special Master.

Following extensive discovery and a month-long hearing, the Special Master recommended that the Court dismiss Florida’s complaint because Florida had not demonstrated “clear and convincing evidence” that its injury could be redressed by capping Georgia’s consumptive use. Report of the Special Master (Feb. 14, 2017).

Description of the ACF river basin

Three interstate rivers flow through the ACF basin.

  • The Chattahoochee River originates in the north Georgia mountains and flows for 400 miles, passing by Atlanta and along the Alabama-Georgia state line before emptying into Lake Seminole, which lies immediately north of Florida. Five dams operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) are located along its course.
  • The Flint River rises just south of Atlanta and flows south for 350 miles joining the Chattahoochee to form Lake Seminole. No Corps dams exist along the Flint. Irrigated agriculture has exploded in the Flint basin over the last 45 years, and the greatest share of the entire basin’s water is consumed by these irrigators.
  • Water from Lake Seminole is released through the Corps’ Woodruff Dam to become the Apalachicola River. The Apalachicola runs for 106 miles through the Florida panhandle to the Gulf of Mexico, where it helps sustain one of the nation’s most productive marine estuaries, Apalachicola Bay.

Note on the parties

The parties to the case are Florida and Georgia. Alabama chose not to participate, and the United States enjoys sovereign immunity in this instance. Although Georgia moved to dismiss, asserting that the United States was a necessary party that could not be joined, the Special Master ruled that a cap on Georgia’s water consumption could possibly address Florida’s injury without affecting the Corps’ operation of its Chattahoochee dams. Special Master’s Order on Georgia’s Motion to Dismiss (June 19, 2015).

Report of the Special Master

The Master wrote that there was “little question” that Florida had suffered harm from reduced flows in the Apalachicola. He also stated that it appeared that agricultural irrigation along the Flint had grown dramatically and that Georgia had done little to restrain this consumptive water use. While the Master appears to have assumed that Georgia’s agricultural water use was unreasonable, he added that it was less clear that Georgia’s water consumption for municipal and industrial purposes was unreasonable.

The Master concluded that while more could be said about Florida’s injury and the reasonableness of Georgia’s consumption, it was not necessary to do so. Regardless of harm or unreasonable use, the Master found that Florida had failed to demonstrate by “clear and convincing evidence” that its injury could be redressed, since the Corps could likely offset any additional flow on the Flint by storing more water in its Chattahoochee reservoirs during dry periods rather than releasing it through the Woodruff Dam into the Apalachicola.

The Special Master applied the wrong standard

The Court found that the Master’s redressability test was too strict. While the clear-and-convincing standard has been applied to initial showings of substantial injury, it does not apply to redressability. Instead, the standard is whether the complaining state has demonstrated that “it is likely to prove possible” to craft relief.


The Court held that, at this stage and based upon its examination of the record, Florida had met its initial burden on redressability. Remand, however, was required to find additional facts to enable the Court to perform its equitable-balancing inquiry.

Factors to consider on remand

The Court then turned to the Master’s conclusion and addressed (1) whether it was possible for a cap on Georgia’s water consumption to produce additional streamflow in the Apalachicola, and (2) whether that additional flow would significantly redress Florida’s harm without a decree binding the Corps. According to the Court, the record demonstrated that considerable additional water could flow into Lake Seminole from the Flint River as the result of a cap. But will it flow through the Woodruff Dam into the Apalachicola at relevant times? Based on the record, the Corps’ Master Manual, and the amicus brief filed by the United States, the Court found that it was likely that a cap would provide more water to Florida by reducing the number of days, even during dry periods, that the Corps must conduct drought operations at Woodruff, operations during which the Corps would offset additional flows from the Flint. The Court also determined that there was evidence indicating that the additional water would significantly address Florida’s harm.

Without explicit findings, however, the Court was unable to determine how much extra water would be provided or how much Florida would be benefited. Thus, the case was remanded for additional findings on those two issues as well as more findings on Florida’s harm, the reasonableness of Georgia’s consumption, and whether that consumption harmed Florida.

Special Master on remand

The Supreme Court has appointed Paul Kelly, Jr. to serve as Master on remand.

In an order handed down in November 2018, the new Master found that the existing record in the case is adequate to resolve the merits of the issues raised by the Court; thus, the remand is poised to move ahead somewhat more quickly than many observers had anticipated.

William L. Andreen

William L. Andreen is the Edgar L. Clarkson Professor of Law at the Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr. School of Law, The University of Alabama.