A group representing a wide range of interests in the dispute among Florida, Georgia and Alabama over a shared river system said the quest for a solution has been slowed by Florida’s latest lawsuit in the so-called "water wars."
The group, known as the ACF Stakeholders, nonetheless hopes to release a sustainable water-management plan for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system in September.
The group has more than 50 members, representing fishing, navigation, hydro-electric power and community interests from all three states. They’ve raised $1.5 million to fund the operations privately, and any one member can block the group from taking any action. The group was formed in 2009 to find a solution to the water dispute, which dates back to 1990.
"We were frustrated with the fact that the states had been unable to find a solution," said group Chairman James McClatchey, co-chief executive officer of the Southern Aluminum Finishing Co. in Atlanta. "There was a lot of frustration that the courts were not the way to solve this problem."
And there was more frustration when Florida filed the lawsuit in October. The group had been sharing data with the three states' environmental agencies -- but no longer felt free to do so.
"It made the group very nervous that we were going to get drawn into a lawsuit," McClatchey said.
So on Nov. 15, the group wrote the governors of Florida, Georgia and Alabama, asking them to sign a memorandum of understanding to the effect that none of the group’s findings would be used in court until they had been cleared for release.
"For our process to work, the stakeholders must be able to communicate openly and candidly, without fear that the ACFS information will be used in a manner that is adverse to their interests," wrote the group’s then-chairman, Billy Turner.
Florida declined to sign the memorandum Dec. 12. The group then asked Florida to delay the lawsuit but said it's had no reply.
"The families that rely on the Apalachicola River can't afford to wait for relief while Georgia squanders water," Scott spokesman John Tupps said Friday. "Gov. Scott will take the necessary steps to fight for those families."
In 2012, the combination of drought and reduced fresh water from Georgia produced the lowest flows in 89 years -- since records have been kept. The Apalachicola Bay's historical productivity has come from its mix of salt water and fresh water, but without enough fresh water coming from Georgia, the mixture is too salty for oysters and other seafood to thrive.
Since then, the bay has been declared a federal fishery disaster and is slated to receive $6.3 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The money will go to re-shell the oyster beds and retrain seafood workers, many of whom are working out of state while the bay recovers.
Dan Tonsmeire, of the environmental-advocacy group Apalachicola Riverkeeper, said increased rain over the last year and a half had helped the bay recover, but he expects the process to take as long as five years.
"The oysters are not wanting to come back," said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.
Georgia has won a number of legal decisions in recent years. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls flows down the river basin, relies on a 2011 ruling from a federal appeals court that said Georgia has a legal right to the water from Lake Lanier, near Atlanta. That ruling overturned a federal magistrate's 2009 ruling in favor of Florida and Alabama.
Georgia called Florida’s most recent lawsuit an “end run” around the Corps of Engineers.
The Corps, meanwhile, is developing new water-control manuals that will, in part, govern how to determine the amount of fresh water to release downstream. The manuals are expected to be ready in 2015.
McClatchey said the Corps "has expressed a lot of interest" in the stakeholder group’s findings and that the group would turn them over when its report is complete.
He predicted that the group’s report would both please and pain all the individual stakeholders, regardless of their home state or livelihood.
"The key is to put yourself in the other guys’ shoes," McClatchey said. "And of course, you’ve got to be driven by the data."