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Justices Give Florida Narrow Win in Water Fight with Georgia

AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser, File

Florida's governor is cheering and his Georgia counterpart is digging in for a fight after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Florida to press its case in a decades-long battle between the two states over a river that serves them both.

The justices' 5-4 ruling Wednesday concerns a dispute over Georgia's use of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers that serve booming metro Atlanta, Georgia's powerful agricultural industry and Florida's oyster fisheries beyond the river's mouth.

The court said a special master appointed to hear the lawsuit should reconsider Florida's argument that limiting how much water Georgia uses would provide more water downstream to the Apalachicola River that flows into Apalachicola Bay and the nearby Gulf of Mexico.

Florida officials celebrated the decision even though it means that the expensive battle, which has cost the state's taxpayers $57 million in the last four years, will continue forward.

"Today's ruling is a huge win for the entire state of Florida," said Gov. Rick Scott, who pushed to have the state sue Georgia directly. "After decades of failed negotiations, we took our historic action to protect families all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. I am glad that the court ruled in Florida's favor today and we look forward to further securing a healthy Apalachicola Bay while protecting the thousands of jobs that depend on this natural resource. The best interest of these families will always come first."

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, however, said he "remained confident" in his state's legal position.

"Georgia remains committed to the conservation efforts that make us amicable stewards of our water resources," said Deal, adding that both he and Attorney General Chris Carr "remain committed to making every effort to defend Georgia's water resources for our current and future citizens. We look forward to obtaining a positive ruling on the merits in this case."

The states' battle over water use dates back to 1990, and includes drawn-out negotiations and several lawsuits. Alabama, which has the Chattahoochee on its eastern border, is not part of the current lawsuit that was first filed nearly five years ago.

The special master the court appointed to hear the lawsuit had recommended that the court side with Georgia and reject Florida's call for limiting water consumption from the Flint river. But five of the justices did not agree with his decision.

"Five of us believe that the special master, as Florida said, did apply too strict a standard and that under a proper standard, Florida did adequately show that relief may be possible," Justice Stephen Breyer said in announcing the opinion. "We hold that the master should go on to make further factual findings in the case, such as whether Georgia is, in fact, using too much Flint River water, and if so, whether Florida could benefit significantly from a cap on Georgia's use of that water."

Credit AP Photo/Phil Sears, File
FILE- In this Aug. 13, 2013, file photo, oysters are displayed in Apalachicola, Fla.

Breyer was joined in his opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

In announcing the decision Wednesday, on the last day of the Supreme Court's term before summer recess, Breyer said that if the public wishes to "learn something of the beauty and emotional appeal of this southeastern river basin," he could recommend songs: Alan Jackson's song "Chattahoochee" or Bing Crosby and Bob Hope performing "Apalachicola, Fla." But he said if "you wish to learn about water rights" and "equitable apportionment of river water among states" he'd recommend reading the opinions in the case.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who grew up in Georgia, wrote that he would have sided with Georgia.

"In the final analysis, Florida has not shown that it will appreciably benefit from a cap on Georgia's water use," Thomas wrote in a dissent for himself and Justices Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch.

Though the decision in the case was 5-4, the justices did not split along ideological lines, with two conservative justices joining three liberal justices in the majority and Kagan, a liberal, joining three conservatives in dissent.

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