TALLAHASSEE, Fla. –
A special master of the U.S. Supreme Court has scheduled a trial for Oct. 31 in Florida's lawsuit against Georgia over the river system they share --- and with the latest in a series of droughts threatening, downstream users say the fate of the Apalachicola Bay could well be at stake.
"That last drought we had --- if we get just half of that, this bay may never be able to rebuild itself," said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers' Association.
Florida sued Georgia in 2013, contending that Georgia's overconsumption of water had reduced freshwater flows from the top of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, near metro Atlanta, to the Florida Panhandle, home of the Apalachicola Bay.
Georgia denies it, arguing that Florida's mismanagement of the bay is to blame for its woes.
The Apalachicola Bay's seafood industry was once a formidable economic driver for the region, producing 90 percent of Florida's oysters and 10 percent of the nation's supply. Its commercial and recreational fishing industries generated $200 million a year and supported 85 percent of the local population. But no more.
"We're only a quarter of what we used to have," Hartsfield said.
The quality of the bay's seafood relies on a mix of freshwater and saltwater --- and now the salinity is too high due to lower freshwater flows from upstream. The industry has struggled to rebuild since 2012, when a series of droughts and low flows caused the bay to collapse. It was declared a federal fisheries disaster in 2013, and oystermen whose families had made a living on the bay for generations began leaving the area.
That's when Gov. Rick Scott sued Georgia over the ACF system, and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal responded that he'd been negotiating in good faith for two years to no avail. Neither can comment now, given a gag order in the lawsuit.
And while special master Ralph Lancaster has pushed the warring states to collaborate, there's been little sign of it.
"When this matter is concluded, one and probably both of the parties will be unhappy with the court's order," Lancaster said in a conference call with attorneys last year.
Litigation between the states isn't new. Florida filed its first lawsuit over the river system in 1990, with Alabama --- which also shares the ACF --- backing Florida's position that explosive growth in the Atlanta area had left downstream users with less than their fair share of the water. Alabama has sat out the newest lawsuit.
What's new is that time could be running out.
The men who protect the Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola rivers --- known as "riverkeepers" --- say they expect another drought very soon.
"Looking at recent trends, we had a severe drought in 2007, again in 2012, and these recent trends are indicating that we're due," Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth said.
"We tend to see the Flint go low quicker than we did back in the '70s and early '80s," said Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers. "The only question is how deep and how long this drought will be."
"The flow in the river has dropped precipitously," Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire warned.
But the riverkeepers also say there is enough water in the ACF to meet everyone's basic needs --- if it is equitably shared.
"It's a matter of being more efficient with what we have," Rogers said. "Atlanta is doing better, big (agriculture) is doing better --- but there's a lot of room for improvement."
Tonsmeire and Ulseth point to the work of a group called the ACF Stakeholders, formed in 2009 to find a solution to the water dispute. Its 56 members represented fishing, navigation, hydroelectric-power and community interests from the three states. Operating by consensus, they proposed a plan last year for Florida, Georgia and Alabama to establish a data clearinghouse and promote conflict resolution among the states.
They also recommended that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the ACF system, adopt changes aimed at using the system's reservoirs more efficiently during normal conditions in order to mitigate the impact of droughts.
Tonsmeire says a confluence of events puts the Apalachicola River and Bay at greater risk than ever. The drought and lawsuit are two. A third is that the Corps of Engineers will soon issue its new operations manual for the ACF --- which environmentalists say will allocate even lower flows to Florida.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, has tried to address the Corps' management of the ACF through legislation --- but Georgia's congressional delegation has blocked his efforts.
"Unfortunately, the compromise everyone sought has not been reached and one state continues to benefit from the status quo," Rubio wrote in an email Thursday. "I, along with my colleagues from Florida and Alabama, continue to press for the Army Corps of Engineers to execute a partnering agreement between the states, assuring they will be neutral in the dispute, but Georgia prefers spending time and money fighting this in court."