On a hot Tuesday in mid-August, residents of Apalachicola, Fla., gathered outside the county courthouse, where a banner over the entrance read in capital letters “Save the last great bay!” Some carried signs with messages like “Save our river!” and “Congress must act!” In a packed room inside, the state’s two U.S. senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson, heard stats and stories from local businessmen, academics and government representatives about the slow death of Apalachicola Bay and the community it’s taking down with it.

Apalachicola and its neighboring towns stand apart from the rest of the beach towns along Florida’s panhandle because, for generations, residents have created a local identity and economy based on harvesting and fishing that timeless marine delicacy, the humble oyster. “I love this area. My family’s raised up on it,” Ricky Banks, a fourth-generation oysterman, told the senators.

During the past two years, the oyster population here has gone into dramatic decline, plummeting last August to the point where they almost disappeared.

The shellfish’s Apalachicola Bay home is the victim of a decades-long battle over water resources in the Southeast, dubbed “the tri-state water wars.” For years, Florida, Alabama and Georgia have been fighting over access to water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River basin, which flows from northeast Georgia down through Alabama and western Georgia and ultimately into Apalachicola Bay. Not long ago, the bay produced 90 percent of the oysters in Florida and 10 percent of the national supply. But Florida is losing the water wars, and the oystermen are losing their jobs and their livelihoods as a result.


The city of Atlanta is a major culprit. It has grown rapidly during the past 40 years, consuming more and more water at the top of the basin and leaving increasingly little for areas downstream, damaging local economies and ecosystems all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The oyster-friendly habitat of the bay, the result of fresh water flowing down the Apalachicola River and mixing with the salt water in the bay for a unique environment where oysters and thousands of other species thrive, is dying without adequate fresh-water flows from upstream. The bay is also critical to the region’s shrimping and fishing industries, with the health of fishing industries up and down the gulf dependent on the bay.

For two decades, the three states have been locked in failed negotiations, legislative and legal battles over access to the water. Apalachicola could be the first casualty.

Residents’ anger at the city of Atlanta, Georgia’s state government, and its congressional delegation was palpable at the hearing. “Let Atlanta stop watering their grass a little bit, don’t give their dogs a five-gallon bucket of water that’s gonna sit there and let mosquitos nest in. Give them a little bowl,” Banks said animatedly. “You know, let them conserve a little bit and let us have our fair share.”

In the town of 3,000 people and county of 10,000, the economic impact of the situation is ever-present as oystermen, unable to make a living on the bay, leave the area to find work. Banks’ brother and brother-in-law both left for Arkansas looking for work.

“I’ve had to lay off workers,” Lynn C. Martina, who runs an oyster processing plant in Eastpoint, a community across the bay from Apalachicola, said. “I’ve lost my seafood routes. I’ve got my seafood trucks for sale.”

During the past three years, Martina, whose family business buys oysters from the harvesters, processes them and sells them to restaurants and other businesses, has seen her own business drop by 80 percent. Her staff has decreased by about half in that time period, and the next round of layoffs could come next week. “If things don’t get better for the dealers as well so we can keep our doors open, we’re all going to be out of a job,” she said.

As Georgia’s water consumption has increased, the situation in Apalachicola at first slowly deteriorated. Residents began to notice the effects in the past decade, and a number of severe drought years have exacerbated the problem. But a perfect storm of events beginning in 2010 sent the oyster population off the cliff.

To understand the sudden collapse of the bay, Dan Tonsmeire, an advocate for the bay and a 30-year veteran of conservation efforts in the region, says you have to start in April 2010 with the BP oil spill.

With millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico every day and no end in sight, the residents of Apalachicola watched helplessly as the oil spread to within 100 miles of their bay. Normally, the state protects the oyster population by allowing harvesting on only one side of the bay at a time, alternating between summer and winter areas called “bars.” But believing the oil would reach the bay, the state of Florida lifted those restrictions. “They opened the whole bay and told the guys, ‘Go get ‘em, the oil’s gonna kill them anyway,’” Martina said. With the price of oysters going through the roof due to the spill, the dealers bought up everything the harvesters brought in. The oil never did reach the bay, but the harvesting frenzy, Martina contends, marked the beginning of the end.

Soon, a severe, prolonged drought set in for the next two years and water flowing into the bay reached its lowest level for the longest period of time since the government began to track water flows, in 1923. Without fresh water, predators invaded the bay and diseases came in and settled. The oystermen spent longer and longer days on the water only to pull in less and less in their hauls. In June 2012, Tropical Storm Debby hit the region, destroying the remaining beds where the oysters grow. A few months later, in August, the bay collapsed.

Before the collapse, oystermen could haul in about 17 bags of oysters in a five-hour workday, according to Tonsmeire, the executive director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper group, which advocates for the bay. All of a sudden, eight hours on the bay yielded a paltry three bags.

The oystermen couldn’t pay their bills. Shannon Hartsfield, an oysterman of 35 years and president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, realized he had to do something to bring in relief. He helped organize a meeting with the county commissioner to alert the state to the dire situation in the bay. More than 500 oystermen showed up at the courthouse. “They listened to person after person after person saying, ‘I can’t make my truck payment, I can’t make my house payment,’” Tonsmeire said. “These are very hard-working, proud people who are not looking for a handout. But they were on the rails.”

That meeting got the state involved. Gov. Rick Scott asked the Department of Commerce to declare the Florida oyster industry a fishery disaster, which it finally did on Aug. 12 of this year. But the designation doesn’t necessarily come with money. This year, federal aid money tied to Tropical Storm Debby paid for a program to reshell the bay, paying harvesters a fraction of their former incomes to dump shells back into the bay in the hopes that oysters would attach to them and grow. As the program wraps up this week, Hartsfield says, hundreds of desperate oystermen are lining up to participate in the next reshelling project in order to make ends meet.

“Everybody’s freaking out,” said Hartsfield, adding that he gets 50 to 60 calls per day from distraught oystermen. “They don’t know what to do, they don’t know which way to turn, you know? And so many of their loved ones have already had to move away. They’re scared.”

Hartsfield estimates that about 100 people have already left the county to look for work.

The fight to preserve the bay is a race against time. On the afternoon of Sens. Rubio and Nelson’s hearing, Gov. Scott announced that the state would take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court this fall and seek an injunction against the state of Georgia’s water use. Even if granted, the court would likely assign a special master to reallocate the water supply -- a process that Tonsmeire fears could take up to 10 years. If it takes that long, “I’m afraid it will be too late,” he said.

For Martina, the situation could get worse in a matter of days. “When they get on the winter bars the first of September, we could really be in trouble,” she said. The oystermen who have gone out to check on the bars tell her “there’s nothing out there. They said they’re not finding anything on the winter bars.”

The tristate dispute has also been playing out in Washington, D.C., where federal legislation to solve the problem pits Florida’s delegation against Georgia’s. That’s because Georgia’s increasing water consumption is compounded by a related problem threatening the bay: the federal government’s water management policy. In order to save the bay, Florida’s representatives must wrangle through legislation to force the federal government to address the bay’s water needs. And the chances of that are very slim.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Defense Department agency that oversees federal public works projects, controls the federal reservoirs in the ACF Basin, including how much water is released from the Jim Woodruff Dam at the top of the Apalachicola River. The corps calculates how much water to release into Florida after Georgia has taken what it needs to supply Atlanta and its agriculture industry. In drought years, when upstream withdrawals grow, the corps gives even less to Florida in order to maintain levels in the reservoirs. The corps is rewriting its water control manual regarding water allocation in the basin, which will take into account Atlanta’s water supply needs. But so far, the corps hasn't indicated that it will consider the health of the bay in making its water management policy. “The corps, as a federal agency, is literally letting us wither on the vine,” Tonsmeire said.

In other words, the corps has the ability to mitigate upstream use and allow more water to flow downstream --  but it hasn’t. “The good Lord giveth, and Georgia and the corps taketh away,” one Florida state official at the hearing said, to loud applause from the crowd.

This year, Florida’s congressional delegation led by Sen. Nelson pushed to add language to the Water Resources Development Act of 2013 that would require the corps to operate with the bay’s needs in mind. But Georgia’s two senators opposed it and the bill passed the Senate in May without the new language. The water resources act has yet to pass the House, and Florida’s delegation is planning to put up a fight to amend its version of the bill. Sen. Rubio also tried but failed to add language limiting Atlanta’s use of the federal reservoirs' water at the top of the river system. “We desperately need Congress to take this action now, not after our fisheries, economy and way of life are destroyed like the Chesapeake, Delaware, San Francisco, Florida Bays and so many others before us,” Tonsmeire wrote in prepared testimony for the hearing, where he was a witness. “Time is of the essence.”

After the hearing, however, he wasn’t optimistic. “I was asking for our congressional delegation to go to the mat just like the Georgia delegation,” he said. “I was told that they aren’t. They say it’s not passable, that they can’t get it done because of Georgia.” (Spokespersons for Georgia Senators Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss declined to comment for this story.)

“When you come into Apalachicola, you’ll see all the shrimp boats along the waterfront,” photographer Richard Bickel said. “When you drive to Apalachicola through Eastpoint, you’ll see all the oyster boats in the bay.” Sent to document the bay on a magazine assignment in the early 1990s, Bickel fell for the unique bay community and decided to make Apalachicola his home. He has published two photo books on the bay. Without the oyster industry, he says, Apalachicola would become like any other tourist beach town. “We’d have no soul,” he said.

Still, Bickel said, oysters aren’t the whole story. “We’re talking about this marvelous ecosystem that helps spawn a good deal of the fish that we catch, and shrimp, in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. Indeed, the Apalachicola River and floodplains that run into the bay are among the most biologically diverse in North America. The bay is one of the most productive estuaries in the world and supports fish populations in the Gulf, playing an important role in the region’s multibillion-dollar fishing industry.

Though the bay belongs to Florida, its future depends on Georgia, the Army Corps of Engineers and negotiations in Washington -- a reality the residents of Apalachicola have slowly come to realize. Though they stress their work ethic and self-sufficiency, everyone talks about how the situation is out of their hands.

“Somebody has to step up and do something for us,” Banks told his two senators. “We’re used to doing it on our own, but we’ve come to something we have no control over.”