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Florida And Georgia Argue In Court Over Water Rights


Access to water is also front and center in a case before the Supreme Court on Monday. The case pits Florida against Georgia, and the case affects oystermen in Florida, farmers in south Georgia and people and businesses in Atlanta. Molly Samuel of member station WABE reports on the latest battle in this decades-long water wars.

MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: The most basic thing to know about this case is that Florida says Georgia uses too much water, and it calls out Atlanta, which gets most of its water from the Chattahoochee River. So I headed out on that river with Jason Ulseth. He's with the environmental group Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. He motors a boat over to the spot where the city of Atlanta gets its water through an intake pipe.

JASON ULSETH: And they withdraw their water on a constant basis just underneath the water surface there.

SAMUEL: So Atlanta, this is where your water comes from, right here.

ULSETH: That's it.

SAMUEL: For the past two decades, Florida, Georgia and Alabama have fought over this water. Now Florida's suing Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court over it.


MARCO RUBIO: Georgia's stealing our water.

SAMUEL: That's Florida Senator Marco Rubio. He mentioned the fight in a Senate debate earlier this month, jokingly channeling Donald Trump.


RUBIO: We're going to make Georgia give us the water, and Georgia's going to pay for it.

SAMUEL: In its lawsuit, Florida says that during droughts, not enough water makes it out of Georgia down to the Apalachicola River. Florida says that's killing the Apalachicola Bay economy, which revolves around oysters.

JOSEPH PARRISH: People are struggling.

SAMUEL: Joseph Parrish is a commissioner in Franklin County, Fla. on the Apalachicola Bay. And he's the manager at a seafood company.

PARRISH: It affects the whole economy. It affects people's ability to buy groceries, provide for their family. You know, it'd be like a small town that relies on steel mills or relies on coal and all of a sudden there ain't no more.

SAMUEL: Florida says this is Georgia's fault, and it's asking the Supreme Court to put a cap on how much water Georgia can use from the river basin.

TOM CUNNINGHAM: If Atlanta itself were capped, we would have a very serious problem.

SAMUEL: Tom Cunningham is the chief economist at the Metro Atlanta Chamber. Atlanta's the ninth-largest city in the U.S. He says if strict water use limits are put in place here, population growth would be restricted. New businesses wouldn't move here. Property values would fall. Income would go down.

CUNNINGHAM: It's a mess.

SAMUEL: So two economies, Apalachicola and Atlanta, rely on the same water. And there are others in between who need it, too - the state of Alabama, other cities, utilities, people who boat or fish in the rivers, wildlife. And there's another river in this system, the Flint. It runs through the middle of Georgia and eventually meets up with the Chattahoochee to form the Apalachicola. Farmers who rely on that river are worried, too. Casey Cox is a sixth-generation farmer. Her family grows peanuts and sweet corn.

CASEY COX: A cap on our water use would be a cap on our future of agricultural productivity in southwest Georgia.

SAMUEL: For its part, Georgia says the oyster decline in Florida is not its fault, and limiting its water use wouldn't help the situation. Chattahoochee Riverkeeper's Jason Ulseth says most of the time, there is enough water to go around. And he thinks even during droughts like now, everyone could get by if they could share.

ULSETH: Both states should be able to grow, have strong economies, have clean water supplies and have healthy river systems. But it's going to take a lot of work and it's going to take a lot of compromise to make that happen.

SAMUEL: This fight has been going on since 1990. The Supreme Court has chosen a special master to manage the case, which starts on Monday. He's warned that no one is likely to be happy with the outcome. For NPR News, I'm Molly Samuel in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Molly Samuel
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