TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – With an adverse legal decision in the ongoing "water war" with Georgia, Florida congressional members on Wednesday began taking steps to reassert Florida's claim that regional water policies are hurting Apalachicola Bay.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he has filed a bill to require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to increase the freshwater flow from Georgia south into the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay.
U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn, a Republican whose Northwest Florida district includes Apalachicola Bay, called on the Corps to suspend new plans to allow more water use in Georgia until the federal agency meets with Florida officials and others to discuss the impact of the court report.
Dunn also plans to file a resolution seeking to block Corps authority to write water-control rules that could hurt Florida.
The actions came after a U.S. Supreme Court special master on Tuesday released a report recommending the nation's highest court reject Florida's call for a cap on Georgia's water use. Florida filed a lawsuit against Georgia in 2013, alleging that Georgia diverts too much water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin.
Special Master Ralph Lancaster said he could not devise a settlement between Florida and Georgia without the Corps' participation because the federal agency controls water flow through the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin in a series of dams and reservoirs.
"The lack of freshwater flowing into Apalachicola Bay is having a devastating effect on the local oyster industry and local economy," Nelson said. "The oystermen whose livelihood depends on having enough freshwater in the bay are relying on us to get this fixed."
Nelson's bill would require the Corps to send "an adequate amount" of freshwater south to Apalachicola Bay. He filed a similar bill in 2013 but it did not pass.
Dunn, who is from Panama City, said the lack of a settlement between Georgia and Florida is hurting the area's ecosystem and economy.
"At one time, the Apalachicola River and Bay were as unique as any aquatic ecosystem in Florida's history, including the Everglades," Dunn said. "Sadly, this is no longer the case."
Dunn noted the special master's report cited extensive harm to Florida's river system from the low water flows tied to Georgia's water use and that stopping the Corps' new policies for the region, known as a water control manual, "is necessary to right this wrong."
Dunn said Wednesday he, along with other members of Florida's congressional delegation, will send a letter to the Corps "calling for it to halt implementation and meet with stakeholders immediately to discuss the Corps' water control practices at the ACF river basin."
In another move, Dunn said he would file a Congressional Review Act resolution "to permanently roll back" the Corps' rule establishing the water policies.
"This will block the Army Corps' harmful rule and allow the states to come to an equitable agreement on the management of the ACF river basin," Dunn said.
The resolution, which would overturn the Corps' rule, must be approved by a majority of the House and Senate and signed by the president. It is likely to draw opposition from the Georgia congressional delegation.