Georgia and Florida Resort to Mediation to Settle 25-Year Water Fight

by | November 19, 2015

By Dan Chapman

Georgia has requested a mediator to resolve the 25-year water war with Florida. Florida is on board, according to recently released court documents.

A settlement doesn't appear imminent, though, between the long-warring states that disagree over how to share the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers. But the move toward compromise, announced last week, brightened the outlook of one key water wars observer.

"I'm delighted," said Ralph Lancaster, an attorney the U.S. Supreme Court appointed to be a special master to resolve the watery dispute. "And I can't overemphasize the fact that I'm delighted to see both the word 'settlement' and the word 'mediator' in the reports and to know that you're moving toward that process."

Lancaster, appointed a year ago, has repeatedly and vociferously urged attorneys for Georgia and Florida to settle the water wars case amongst themselves or else risk a possibly unsatisfactory -- to both sides -- judgment promulgated by the special master.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has set aside $20 million for the latest legal skirmish pitting Florida's ailing oyster industry against Georgia's right to use plentiful amounts of Chattahoochee River water, primarily across metro Atlanta. Georgia also seeks to maintain full use of the Flint River and its tributaries for farmers in southwest Georgia.

The rivers join at the Florida border to become the Apalachicola River. A healthy balance of fresh water and salt water is critical for oysters and other critters to survive in the Apalachicola Bay. And therein lies the crux of the never-ending water war: Florida claims that Georgia's profligate use of the rivers harms oystermen, endangered species and the Panhandle way of life.

Deal and his Florida counterpart met in June to try to make a deal. "Unfortunately, those efforts have not advanced and there has been no material progress on settlement since June," Georgia attorney Craig Primis said in a Nov. 6 status report to the special master. "At this point, Georgia believes that the best way to advance the process is to engage a mediator acceptable to both sides who can create a framework for formal in-person discussions and periodic exchanges of information specifically directed to settlement."

Florida welcomed the suggestion. As did Lancaster.

"As I have said from the start, if there's anything, any way at all -- any way at all -- that this can be settled, it ought to be done," he said.

Deal and Florida Gov. Rick Scott declined to comment.

(c)2015 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution