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Florida, Alabama Senators wade into river battle

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a move that could help boost recovery of troubled Apalachicola Bay, U.S. senators from Florida and Alabama have asked a Senate panel to intervene in what they call "the Army Corps of Engineers' ongoing mismanagement" of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., were joined this week by Alabama Republicans Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby in signing a letter to the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development. They urged that the panel include language in an appropriations bill to protect users of the river basin in Florida and Alabama from disproportionate water use by Georgia.

They wrote that they wanted "to ensure that management of the river basin is not left to the whims of an unaccountable federal bureaucracy, but instead is properly determined and agreed upon by each state's governor."

The so-called "water wars" over the river basin have been going on since 1990, when Florida and Alabama sued Georgia. Since then, the three states have sparred over the river system, as metro Atlanta's need for drinking water has skyrocketed.

The Corps of Engineers controls the flows in the tri-state river system and has relied on a 2011 ruling from a federal appeals court that said Georgia has a legal right to water from Lake Lanier, at the top of the system near Atlanta.

Apalachicola Bay in Franklin County is at the south end of the river system, and its oyster industry has long been a key part of the area's economy. In 2013, the bay was declared a federal fishery disaster, and Florida sued Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court. Alabama declined to join that lawsuit.

State Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who represents Franklin County in the Legislature, called the U.S. senators' letter "a game-changer."

"It shows we have a united front now," Montford said. "And there's a recognition that the Corps has been mismanaging the water for decades. … It's a new time in history."

Pat Robbins, the Corps' chief of public affairs for the Mobile district, said his agency does not comment on pending legislation.

A spokeswoman for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said she was unable to comment due to the ongoing case before the Supreme Court. "We are under a gag order from the water wars special master," Jen Talaber wrote in an email.

The letter comes as the Corps accepts public comment on what is known as a draft operating manual for the river basin. Floridians, including Nelson, have criticized the draft as worse for the Apalachicola River and Bay than the current plan, which has been in place for 57 years.

During that time, Atlanta's population exploded, and the Corps, which decides on water levels for reservoirs in the river system, rejected pleas from Florida and Alabama to release more water downstream.

The four senators hope to override the Corps' control of water levels in the system. They're modeling their proposal on language protecting the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basin already contained in the Senate panel's water and energy appropriations bill.

"Senator Shelby believes that this language, if included in the upcoming appropriations measure, would lay the groundwork for a resolution to the decades-old water rights dispute," Shelby spokeswoman Torrie Matous wrote. "The status quo unfairly tips the balance in favor of Georgia, and this language would ensure that the three state's governors -- not bureaucrats in Atlanta -- determine the future of the ACT's (Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa's) and ACF's (Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint's) water supply."

As the states have skirmished over the water, the Apalachicola Bay has suffered droughts, a tropical storm and the BP oil spill, which prompted a massive harvest of oysters in the bay in 2010. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the bay a federal fishery disaster. Seafood workers began leaving the area to find work.

"The regional economy and workforce rely on the freshwater inflow from the ACF Basin, but the Corps has been withholding water flow downstream since 1958," the senators wrote. "As a result, the area has seen a drastic decline in the production of oysters, crab, shrimp and fish and is an ongoing fisheries disaster."

U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who represents Franklin County, also has filed a bill that would require the Corps to consider freshwater flows to the Apalachicola River Basin as part of its water management plans. The bill is backed by most members of Florida's legislative delegation.

"Alabama and Florida coming together on this issue is a positive step in the right direction," Graham wrote in an email. "We're continuing our work in the House to expand our coalition and find more partners to help save the bay."