The state of Florida will take its neighbor to the north, Georgia, to court over the health of Apalachicola Bay in the Florida Panhandle, which depends on fresh water flows from rivers in Georgia in order to support its famous oyster industry. The case is the latest development in a decades-long tri-state conflict over the water resources of northern Georgia.
This isn’t the first time the water wars have resulted in legal action, but it does mark an important shift in the long battle among the states. Until Florida’s announcement, Florida, Georgia and Alabama had said they hoped to work out a water allocation plan outside the courts while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates federal reservoirs at issue in the conflict, draws out plans for how to distribute the water.
After touring the bay on Tuesday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, said the suit would seek to "stop Georgia’s unchecked consumption of water that threatens the existence of Apalachicola fisheries.'' The rapid growth of the Atlanta metro area in the last 40 years, which has depended on drawing an increasing amount of water from the rivers and reservoirs of northern Georgia, has played a significantly reduced water levels downstream. Over the last 23 years, the three states have engaged in failed negotiations over the use of the reservoirs and butted heads in protracted legal battles over the issue. As a recent International Business Times report detailed, Atlanta’s water consumption does not affect Florida alone but hurts Georgia communities downstream of Atlanta too.
In Apalachicola, generations of residents used to produce 90 percent of the state’s oyster harvest. Now, the oyster population is on the brink of collapse. “It’s really about a way of life in Franklin County, Fla., and the people who have spent generations down there farming oysters and engaging in other forms of commercial fishing,” Greg Munson, deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said of the water shortage at a July Senate hearing on the issue. “Basically, they’re being asked to bear the brunt of the growth of Atlanta and other upstream interests in Georgia.”
Scott said the state will seek injunctive relief from the U.S. Supreme Court next month. Earlier in the day, the two U.S. senators from Florida, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, held a Commerce Committee field hearing on the bay’s disintegrating health. The announcement also came one day after the federal government declared the bay a disaster zone for the oyster industry.
The federal government, through the Army Corps of Engineers, will ultimately play an important role in the issue by determining use of the federal reservoirs at the top of the two key river basins that flow into Apalachicola Bay. But as advocates for the bay testified at Tuesday’s hearing, the corps seems poised to favor Georgia’s interests over Florida’s.
“This is a bold, historic legal action for our state,” Scott said. “But this is our only way forward after 20 years of failed negotiations with Georgia. We must fight for the people of this region. The economic future of Apalachicola Bay and Northwest Florida is at stake.”