Legal Update: Florida Supreme Court Lawsuit
By: Clyde Morris, LLA Attorney
On January 31, the State of Georgia filed its response to Florida’s motion for leave to file a complaint in the U. S. Supreme Court. LLA members may recall that Florida asked the Supreme Court to perform “equitable apportionment” of the ACF waters, giving more to Florida than it has gotten in the past. The Supreme Court must consent to the filing of a complaint, and Georgia filed its response in an attempt to persuade the Court not to give its consent.
Georgia’s filing makes several main points: (a) the Corps is working on its first revision in half a century to the ACF Control Manual, which determines how much water will be discharged from Woodruff Dam into the Apalachicola River; (b) the United States itself is not a party to Florida’s action and cannot be made a party unless the United States waives sovereign immunity (which it hasn’t); (c) Florida’s filing has failed to produce any convincing argument or evidence that Georgia is taking more than its fair share of water; and (d) any relief the Court could give would not take into account the Corps’ statutory authority to operate the ACF system according to federal law. On page 31, the State summarizes thusly:
In sum, Florida has not pleaded facts plausibly suggesting that it will be able to establish clear and convincing evidence that it suffers substantial injury as a result of Georgia’s consumption of water.
Some more specific excerpts include the following (with pages indicated but legal citations deleted):
25 There is no basis for applying federal common law to address alleged injuries that fall within the broad scope of the thicket of federal environmental and natural resource statutes, and certainly not before those statutes have been applied, Florida has determined that they fail to address its alleged injuries, and an APA action has been unsuccessful. Then, and only then—after the application of the relevant federal statutes and the subsequent determination whether Florida is injured—will it be possible to determine whether there remains any common law claim at all for whatever particular injury is left.
26 …metropolitan Atlanta’s net consumption stands at roughly 0.8% of the entire annual average daily flow of Florida’s Apalachicola River.
27 Florida notes that Georgia has requested that the Corps make available storage in Lake Lanier sufficient to support 705 mgd of gross withdrawals for the metropolitan Atlanta region by the year 2040. *** But … Georgia expects to return 78% of these withdrawals (or 550 mgd) back to the river if the Corps grants Georgia’s request. This total net withdrawal of 155 mgd will constitute a mere 1.1% of average daily flow at the Florida-Georgia border.
To be sure, severe droughts will reduce the flow of water available to Florida. But those natural droughts reduce Georgia’s access to water as well, and nothing in Florida’s complaint suggests that Georgia consumes more than its fair share of water during these droughts—particularly given that Florida comprises only 11% of the drainage area of the ACF Basin, while Georgia comprises approximately 74%. Moreover, the Corps presently augments flows to ensure that Florida receives a minimum flow of 5,000 cfs at the state line to minimize any adverse effects to federally listed species in the Apalachicola. *** When net basin inflows fall below 5,000 cfs, the Corps supplements them by releasing water stored in the Corps’ upstream reservoirs at Buford, West Point, and Walter F. George Dams. The Corps releases higher flows to benefit threatened and endangered species at other times, and the flow out of Woodruff Dam historically is well in excess of the 5,000 cfs minimum (flows below 5,050 cfs occurred on 0.9% of observed days from 1975-2008).
28 Florida also alleges that low flows have caused commercial harm to its oyster fishery in the Apalachicola (which does not involve threatened or endangered species). But Florida fails to allege any plausible connection between Georgia’s water consumption and the “collapse of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery.”
30 Governor Scott’s letter … drafted outside the context of litigation … candidly attributed reduced oyster harvests to two factors: (1) the “Apalachicola, Flint, and Chattahoochee Rivers, have experienced drought conditions for several years;” and (2) “overharvesting of illegal and sub-legal oysters” in response to the suspension of oyster harvesting in contiguous states (as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill) have led to fewer oyster landings. *** Florida’s attempts to attribute the 2012-2013 low oyster harvest to Georgia’s upstream water usage do not even cross “‘the line between possibility and plausibility’” necessary for an ordinary complaint filed in district court, much less the far more demanding standard that this Court has established for commencement of an original case.
Last summer I characterized Florida’s Supreme Court filing as a “last-ditch effort” to get what it had failed to get through the last 20 years of federal court litigation. To me, the filing itself was legally unimpressive and factually unconvincing. Those remain my impressions and I think it is likely the Supreme Court Justices will have similar impressions after reading Georgia’s response. I would be surprised if the Justices grant Florida’s request and allow this lawsuit to go forward at this time.
The full response document is posted below:
142 Georgia Opp. to FL M. for Leave to File a Complaint – 1-31-14