Florida elected officials, environmentalists and seafood workers are bracing for the release of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers draft plan for the river system that feeds struggling Apalachicola Bay.
Last updated in 1989, the all-important plan --- known as an operating manual --- controls freshwater flows throughout the network of dams and reservoirs in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin, which starts in Georgia and winds south into Alabama and ends at Apalachicola Bay in Northwest Florida's Franklin County.
Florida has sued Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court in a long-running dispute about the water flows. Florida contends that too much freshwater is being siphoned off upstream, increasing the salinity of Apalachicola Bay and damaging the region's vital oyster industry. Georgia disputes Florida's allegations.
But U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Tuesday that the new Army Corps plan isn't likely to help the situation.
"Apparently, the draft (operating manual) being released … isn't going to change one thing to help Apalachicola Bay," Nelson said. "This is very disappointing."
The draft, which had been expected this week, will be posted online "in the very near future," Corps spokeswoman Lisa Parker said Tuesday. That will kick off a 60-day period for public comment, with open houses at five locations throughout the river basin, including one in Apalachicola on Nov. 9.
On Monday, Dan Tonsmeire of the environmental group Apalachicola Riverkeeper spoke at a meeting of what is known as the Seafood Management Assistance Resource and Recovery Team and urged its members to be ready.
"You need to go down there and tell them they need to be looking at Apalachicola Bay," Tonsmeire said. "We've got to let them know they're messing with the wrong folks."
He repeated the message later Monday, when state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, and state Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, held a Franklin County legislative delegation meeting to prepare for the 2016 session.
"The cold reality is that even if we win the lawsuit hands down against Georgia, if the Corps is not directed to release that water downstream, they can continue to hold it in the reservoirs upstream," Tonsmeire said. "So we have to convince them that it is important."
A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote in an email that Rubio is watching for the Corps to release its draft plan.
"With the Apalachicola Bay continuing to suffer from restricted water flow, Senator Rubio looks forward to reviewing the Army Corps of Engineers' draft Environmental Impact Statement," Joanna Rodriguez wrote. "As he has raised in the past directly with the Corps, he hopes the plan will show a neutral stance among the states involved and appropriately account for the needs of the Apalachicola Bay. He also encourages stakeholders to remain engaged in this very important public process."
U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Fla., said Tuesday she hopes for passage of a bill she filed last spring that would require the Corps to consider freshwater flows to the Apalachicola basin as part of its water management plan.
"I'm waiting to see what the draft EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) says, but I am committed to finding a compromise that will be beneficial to the whole ecosystem," Graham, whose district includes Franklin County, said in a telephone interview. "We'll continue to be optimistic that this is the path forward. We've had enough litigation."
The so-called "water wars" over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin have been going on since 1990, when Florida and Alabama sued Georgia. Since then, the three states have sparred over the water, even as metro Atlanta's need for drinking water has skyrocketed.
Meanwhile, the Apalachicola Bay has suffered a series of problems --- including droughts, a tropical storm and the BP oil spill, which prompted a massive harvest of oysters in the bay in 2010. Two years later, the bay collapsed, and in 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared it a federal fishery disaster.
Today, oysters are mostly too small to harvest and can't support the seafood workers, many of whom have left the state to find work. Others are being paid with federal dollars to re-shell oyster beds. But the money is running out and the work has dwindled to one day a week.
The bay still hasn't recovered, said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.
"In the past, the bay has always come back," Hartsfield told Montford and Beshears. "We're facing something we can't control."