April 01, 2021

Supreme Court Decides Florida v. Georgia

On April 1, 2021 the U.S. Supreme Court decided Florida v. Georgia, holding that Florida failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Georgia’s overconsumption of interstate waters injured it, and so Florida was not entitled to a court order requiring Georgia to reduce its water consumption.

This interstate water dispute concerns the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which supplies water to both Florida and Georgia. Florida sued Georgia in an original jurisdiction action in 2013, alleging that Georgia had consumed more than its fair share of the water from this Basin, which, in turn, had both decimated Florida’s oyster-fishing industry and harmed its river ecosystems more broadly. As a remedy, Florida sought an order “requiring Georgia to reduce its consumption of Basin waters.”

Following an initial round of proceedings before a special master, which resulted in review and remand by the Court in 2018, see Florida v. Georgia, 138 S. Ct. 2502 (2018), the special master ruled in Georgia’s favor, finding that “Florida failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Georgia’s alleged overconsumption caused serious harm to Florida’s oyster fishes or its river wildlife and plant life.”

The Court affirmed. In doing so, it held inadequate Florida’s evidentiary showing on both of the injuries it alleged. The Court first concluded that, although the harm to Florida’s oyster population qualified as an injury “of serious magnitude” under its equitable-apportionment-of-water jurisprudence, Florida had failed to prove to a sufficient degree of certainty that Georgia’s consumption of water was the cause of that injury. Instead, the Court reasoned, Florida merely showed that “increased [river] salinity and predation contributed to the collapse, not that Georgia’s overconsumption caused the increased salinity and predation.”

Next, the Court rejected Florida’s more general argument that Georgia’s water usage had harmed Florida’s river ecosystems, agreeing with the special master that there was a “complete lack of evidence” that “any river species suffered serious injury from Georgia’s alleged overconsumption.”

Because it had failed to carry its burden on these issues of injury and causation, the Court held that Florida was not entitled to an order requiring Georgia to reduce its consumption of Basin waters.

Justice Barrett delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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