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Supreme Court To Take Up Legal Battle Over Water Between Florida And Georgia


Soon the Supreme Court will again consider a three-decade dispute over a precious resource - water. Georgia has it, and Florida, which is downstream from Georgia, says it's not getting its fair share. Florida wants the justices to cap Georgia's use, but a court-appointed special master recently rejected that idea. We're going to hear now from both sides of this dispute, starting with NPR's Greg Allen in Georgia.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: More than 6 million people in Georgia, Alabama and Florida depend on water that starts here in Lake Lanier. Water from this reservoir about 50 miles northeast of Atlanta generates hydropower as it's released to the Chattahoochee River. Cecil Quinley oversees power generation here.

CECIL QUINLEY: We generate power based on a peak demand, meaning either we generate in the mornings or afternoons, when people at home are turning on air conditioners or their heaters.

ALLEN: In times of plenty, there's enough water to serve the needs of metro Atlanta, plus communities, industry and farming in southern Georgia, eastern Alabama and a section of Florida's panhandle. The problems arise in the years when there's a drought.

KATHERINE ZITSCH: A one-year drought doesn't cause particular complications, but a three-year drought does.

ALLEN: That's Katherine Zitsch with the Atlanta Regional Commission. A drought from 2006 to 2008 led then-Governor Sonny Perdue to hold a prayer meeting for rain. It also gave urgency to efforts by Florida and Alabama to fight for their share of a scarce resource that, with climate change, is becoming even more unpredictable. After two decades of talks and lawsuits, Florida finally went to the Supreme Court in 2013, asking it to limit how much water Georgia could use. Zitsch says Georgia has done a lot to limit its use of water since the dispute began some 30 years ago. She says since 2000, metro Atlanta has grown by 1.5 million people but now uses 10% less water.

ZITSCH: It's these measures. It's high-efficiency toilets. It's conservation pricing where the more water you use, the more you pay. It's a series of all these different things. You put them together, and you end up with really significant water savings.

ALLEN: It's also spending on infrastructure. Nearby Gwinnett County has spent nearly a billion dollars building a plant that now gets wastewater clean enough that it can be returned to the lake. Another river that's part of the lawsuit, the Flint River, starts near Atlanta and meanders south to the Florida border through pine forests, providing water for small towns and farmland - lots of farmland.

CHRISTOPHER WORSHAM: The machines are using, actually, a sorting line. It's an electronic sorter.

ALLEN: We're in a cavernous warehouse at Worsham Farms, where pecans are sorted and bagged. Christopher Worsham's great-grandfather used mules to raise row crops on this land just 15 miles north of the Florida border. Now Worsham raises corn and peanuts, but pecans are his main crop, and he says they all require irrigation.

WORSHAM: If you want to grow a reliable, dependable-quality crop, a quality product, it takes water, and it takes a lot of it.

ALLEN: Because of the droughts and the lawsuits, Georgia had to take a hard look at the water it uses for farming. It's placed a moratorium on any new wells for agriculture and is requiring all farmers to move to more efficient irrigation systems. A short distance from the warehouse, we drive to one of Worsham's groves. Pecan trees are lined up in rows.

WORSHAM: This was a tree that was just planted last year after the hurricane. This is actually where the water is coming from.

ALLEN: He bends down and points out a small black tube about the size of a straw. All of his trees use this efficient drip irrigation. Most farmers now use soil sensors to let them know when and how much to irrigate. For crops like peanuts and corn, Worsham says, farmers have moved to low-pressure irrigation systems that use less water and lose less of it to evaporation.

WORSHAM: We've taken steps to improve efficiencies and to use less water. And I don't see any of the other states do it because you can go across the state line and you can dig a well and pump as much water and do whatever you want.

ALLEN: Georgians say they're working to conserve water and willing to compromise but wonder if the same is true in Florida. I'm Greg Allen in Camilla, Ga.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: This is Debbie Elliott on Apalachicola Bay in Florida, where there's not enough freshwater coming down the river to keep this estuary healthy.


ELLIOTT: To get a look at what's happening at the southernmost point of the Georgia-Florida water dispute, I take a boat tour with Apalachicola Riverkeeper Georgia Ackerman.

GEORGIA ACKERMAN: It's almost like a slow death, and it's very difficult to watch.

ELLIOTT: Shannon Hartsfield is aboard. He's president of the Local Seafood Workers Association.

SHANNON HARTSFIELD: This right here - you know, like, this used to be a breeding ground, you know, for shrimp and fish and crabs. And it's all changed up drastically.

ELLIOTT: It's where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico and the tides mix salty seawater with the fresh river water flowing downstream, the perfect brew for what has historically been the most famous harvest here - oysters.

HARTSFIELD: But Apalachicola's known for half-shell oysters. Everybody wants to eat them raw.

ELLIOTT: But they're hard to come by these days. Hartsfield comes from a family of oystermen and has watched the fishery decline in the last 20 years. After an extended drought, there was a total collapse in 2012. Hartsfield says it has yet to recover, going from more than 300 working oyster boats when he was a kid to about a dozen today.

HARTSFIELD: If we go through another drought that's even close to 2012 drought, that's going to completely devastate and finish us off.

ELLIOTT: Riverkeeper Emeritus Dan Tonsmeire says the region's last hope is the U.S. Supreme Court.

DAN TONSMEIRE: Without the Supreme Court giving relief to Florida from Georgia's domination of the water, we will see this ecosystem go away.

We'll just sidle through here.

ELLIOTT: As we move upriver, the vegetation changes from salt marsh to more of a wooded riverbank with towering cypress trees. My tour guides point out what's already been lost, including millions of Tupelo trees and the freshwater marsh grasses that have been choked out by saltwater creeping further inshore.

TONSMEIRE: And in here and in the upper part of East Bay - gone.

HARTSFIELD: Gone, completely gone.

ELLIOTT: Apalachicola is old Florida. There are no high-rise condos or big-box stores here. Shops and restaurants downtown draw tourists alongside what's left of a working waterfront.


ELLIOTT: But once-bustling seafood processing plants are closed up and for sale. One of the few still in operation is 13 Mile Seafood, where workers are hosing down the stainless steel shrimp sorting tables.


JOSEPH PARRISH: It's kind of slow here now, so we're doing our maintenance.

ELLIOTT: Joseph Parrish has worked here for 37 years, overseeing the wholesale shrimp operation. Parrish is also a Franklin County commissioner who has been embroiled in the water war since he was first elected in 2006.

PARRISH: I live it. I've lived it my whole life. And I represent the people in Franklin County and all these jobs that we're losing. We're talking about three, 4,000, 5,000 jobs. That's nothing for metro Atlanta, so in comparison, it may not mean much. But when it comes to our history and our heritage and our way of life here, that's what - everybody's heart here in Franklin County, and that's what we're going to continue to fight for and strive for.

ELLIOTT: Parrish is weary from the decades-long legal battle and would like to see the states reach a compact on how to share water. But repeated efforts to reach agreement have failed, leaving the question now to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Apalachicola, Fla.


As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.