Whose water is it, anyway? Alabama’s? Florida’s? Or Georgia’s?

Whenever a dispute arises between or among the States of the United States of America, the U. S. Constitution provides that original jurisdiction lies in the Supreme Court.  In simple terms, whenever a dispute arises between or among the States, a State must file its lawsuit exclusively in the Supreme Court and not in any of the inferior federal courts or in any state court. art. III, section 2, Constitution.

Legend Map of the Apalachicola-Chatahoochee-Flint River Basin
Legend Map of the Apalachicola-Chatahoochee-Flint River Basin

In the early years of the Republic, many of the disputes were questions over the boundary lines separating one state from another. State of Florida v. State of Georgia, 58 U.S. 478 (1855).  Such disputes begin with one State requesting permission to bring a lawsuit before the high court, together with a memorandum arguing the basis for bringing the lawsuit against another state or states.  The Court then appoints an attorney licensed to practice before the Court but residing in another State not involved in or affected by the lawsuit to serve as a special magistrate.

The order appointing the special magistrate generally empowers him or her to take and receive evidence from the parties, issue subpoenas on request of the parties, conduct hearings as required, and to submit to the Court a report or reports and recommendations. The parties may then file exceptions or objections to a report.  The Supreme Court makes the final decision from which there is no further appeal.

In later years, the population of the United States has grown to more than three hundred million.  Population growth in both Florida and Georgia has placed great demands on what is inevitably  a limited water supply.  Disputes between and among the States over this limited water supply have become intractable as demands on water supplies increase.  Complaining States seek intervention of the Court when at least one State believes that another State has used more water than equity allows.

In 2014,  the State of Florida sued the State of Georgia, contending that Georgia has by overuse and impounding of water not yet needed deprived the Apalachicola Bay of sufficient water to sustain Florida’s oyster resource industry.  Florida alleges that an entire way of life dependent on oyster cultivation and an entire ecosystem supported by the Bay are already in jeopardy and may ultimately be destroyed.  See, 1992 cases State of Florida v. State of Alabama v. State of Georgia and, most recently, State of Florida v. State of Georgia, 2014.

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