THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 17, 2013………. The fate of the Apalachicola Bay could be hanging in the balance as Florida’s congressional delegation fights for more water from Georgia, and seafood workers try to restore oyster beds.
This week, the U.S. Senate was the scene of the latest skirmish in a tri-state water dispute between Florida, Georgia and Alabama dating back to 1990. The Senate voted 83-14 to pass the 2013 Water Resources Development Act, after deleting a provision backed by Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio that would have required Georgia to use less water from federal reservoirs for metro Atlanta’s drinking supply and release more to the other two states.
Now the fight shifts to the U.S. House, as the seafood industry in Franklin County struggles to regroup after years of drought.
“There’s a lot of apprehension about the future here,” said Dan Tonsmeire of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an environmental-advocacy group.
Last year the bay collapsed. Historically, it’s been a major economic driver for the state, providing 90 percent of the state’s oysters and 10 percent of the nation’s supply. The commercial and recreational fishing industries of the Apalachicola River and Bay generate $200 million a year and support 85 percent of the local population, according to the Seafood Management Assistance Resource and Recovery Team, a group of seafood workers and buyers.
The bay’s waters also have made rural Franklin County a destination for seafood-loving tourists, who say the Apalachicola harvest is like no other.
But that quality depends on a mix of freshwater and saltwater that can’t be achieved without the release of freshwater upstream. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the flows down the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin, relies on a 2011 ruling from a federal appeals court that says Georgia has a legal right to water from Lake Lanier, at the top of the river-basin system. The ruling overturned a federal magistrate’s 2009 ruling in favor of Florida and Alabama.
Florida has asked Congress for help getting the Corps of Engineers to release more water downstream, to no avail.
“We’ve got to increase the flow or our country will lose an American treasure,” said state Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who represents Franklin County. “Even though we know it and we saw it coming, we’re helpless.”
But Montford said virtually all of Florida’s state and federal lawmakers are collaborating across party and geographical lines.
“Despite this setback, I will not give up on restoring flows towards the Apalachicola Bay,” Rubio wrote on his blog Wednesday, after the Senate vote. “I’ve requested a field hearing in the Apalachicola Bay area so that my colleagues in the Senate can better understand why this issue simply cannot continue to be held hostage to the broken politics of Washington.”
No date has been set for such a field hearing.
Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, who represents Franklin County, said he was pleased with “the tremendous unity that Florida’s delegation has shown” and pledged to work together to ensure that a legislative fix is included in the House version of the Water Resources Development Act.
Gov. Rick Scott and the state’s U.S. representatives have sent letters to Congressman Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, urging him to include increased river flows to Florida in the House version of the act.
“[The Corps of Engineers has] left the water up there, and you know the court system has gone against us,” Scott said Friday. “But look, the water should be flowing down here. It’s impacting the Apalachicola Bay area, so it’s impacting us a lot.”
Time is running out. Montford and Tonsmeire say seafood workers are barely surviving financially. Tonsmeire said one-half to two-thirds of commercial fishermen are currently employed to re-shell the bay so that oysters can grow there again.
But for now the oysters are mostly too small to harvest and not nearly plentiful enough to support a family. And it could take three to five years to get the bay back to its former level of productivity, according to last month’s University of Florida Oyster Recovery Team report.
Tonsmiere said the good news is that recent rains have restored the flows for the last four months. If the rest of this year’s rainfall is normal, the bay will continue healing — for now.
“We’ve just got our fingers crossed it’s going to keep up,” he said.