Florida elected officials disagree about whether a major water-resources bill that President Obama signed last week will accomplish much for the Apalachicola Bay, which is still struggling to recover after the collapse of its oyster fishery in 2012.
Members of the states congressional delegation praised the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 for funneling money to other Florida projects, from restoration of the Everglades to a deepening of the harbors at Jacksonville and Cape Canaveral.
The Florida projects we were able to include were important for either the environment or the economy, said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who attended the bill-signing at the White House, in a statement afterward.
But the water bill did not include new money for the Apalachicola Bay, which U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker declared a federal fishery disaster last fall.
And although U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio voted for the measure when it passed the Senate last month, he said in a statement he was very disappointed that an important effort to help restore the water flows to Apalachicola Bay was not included.
In 2012, a combination of drought and reduced fresh water downstream from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, which originates in Georgia, produced the lowest flows since records have been kept.
The oyster industry was hit hard as a result. The Apalachicola Bay has been a huge economic driver for the Florida Panhandle thanks to its unique blend of salt water and fresh water, which formerly produced 90 percent of the states oysters and 10 percent of oysters nationwide. But without higher freshwater flows downstream from Georgia, the mixture is too salty for oysters to thrive.
Since 1990, control of the water in the river system shared by Florida, Georgia and Alabama has been the subject of lengthy litigation. Recent rulings have favored Georgia. Last fall, Gov. Rick Scott announced a new lawsuit against Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court, which has asked the U.S. Department of Justice for advice on whether to accept the case; that decision is pending.
Thousands of jobs in the Apalachicola Bay area were affected by the low freshwater flows, and the environmental-advocacy group Apalachicola Riverkeeper tried to get language included in the federal water bill requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to allow more fresh water to flow downstream to the stricken bay -- but to no avail.
The bay's economic situation has become a key issue in the hotly contested race between U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, a Panama City Republican who represents the area, and Gwen Graham, a Leon County Democrat who is trying to unseat him.
Southerland issued a statement May 9 when the U.S. House approved the measure and praised a provision known as a "sense of Congress." That provision urged Florida, Georgia and Alabama to reach agreement on an interstate water compact as soon as possible. Absent such action, the committees of jurisdiction should consider appropriate legislation to address these matters.
"I cant overstate the significance of this (Water Resources Reform and Development Act) for North Floridas oystermen and the families who live along the Apalachicola River and Bay," Southerland said in the statement. "While our tireless efforts have yielded a victory thats been a long time coming, the fight to restore these hard-working communities continues."
Southerland spokesman Matt McCullough added in an email Friday that, "While (the bill) does not force Georgia to compromise, it compels them to come to the negotiating table by threatening congressional intervention if they dont. This is truly unprecedented."
But former Florida governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, father of Southerlands opponent, dismissed the legislative language as "re-enact(ing) the status quo."
He said the most "potentially constructive thing would have been to negotiate with the Corps of Engineers, particularly the amount of water that will be allocated" to the Apalachicola River basin.
Gwen Graham has made the Apalachicola Bays woes a focus of her campaign. Last month she criticized Floridas most recent lawsuit against Georgia, saying it had exacerbated the crisis.
"Lawsuits dont generally create positive relationships," she said. "What I would do (if elected) is start working from day one with the Georgia delegation, the Alabama delegation and the Corps of Engineers."
Since 2012, many of the oystermen and other seafood workers who relied on the Apalachicola Bay for their livelihoods are working at other jobs or in other states. The federal fishery disaster declaration has led to $6.3 million being slated for economic recovery efforts, including job training and restoration of the oyster beds.