- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 6, 2016

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) - Gov. Nathan Deal highlighted the stakes of an ongoing dispute over water with Florida on Tuesday, telling state lawmakers that the natural resource is essential to Georgia’s growth.

Deal’s comments at a legislative conference in Athens come days after trial testimony wrapped in a lawsuit between the states.

“Water is one of those natural resources that more and more is becoming a very important factor in the growth of our state, in the prosperity of our state,” Deal said.

Special master Ralph Lancaster was appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case and spent a month hearing from witnesses and reviewing evidence presented by both states in a Portland, Maine courtroom.

Deal and other officials in both states have been tight-lipped about the dispute in recent months, pointing to a gag order issued by Lancaster. Deal said Tuesday that he’s now free to discuss public testimony and evidence from the trial.

“We feel that we have a very strong case and our attorneys have presented everything that we could say to counteract the arguments and the attacks that Florida’s legal team is making,” Deal said. “Hopefully the special master will give due attention to that, and I expect that he will.”

The dispute focuses on a watershed in western Georgia, eastern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. The Chattahoochee and Flint rivers flow through Georgia and meet at the Florida border to form the Apalachicola River, which flows into the Apalachicola Bay.

Lancaster is expected to make a recommendation in early 2017 to the Supreme Court, which has the final say. Lancaster closed the trial by urging attorneys for the two states to come up with a settlement rather than waiting for a recommendation that could leave one or both states “unhappy.”

Florida often focused on south Georgia farmers during testimony, arguing that agricultural use causes low river flows and endangers the oyster industry. The state’s attorneys also have questioned whether metro Atlanta’s residents and industries do enough to conserve water. Florida is seeking a cap on Georgia’s water use.

Georgia argued that any limits on water use in metro Atlanta or by agriculture will harm the state’s economy without significant benefit to Florida. The state’s attorneys also say that Florida hasn’t produced enough evidence that Georgia is to blame.

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