A potential landmark in Florida's long-running dispute with Georgia and Alabama over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system came Wednesday, when 56 people from the three states unanimously approved what they described as a "sustainable water management plan."
The group, known as the ACF Stakeholders, developed the plan over nearly five years, trying to balance Atlanta's need for drinking water with Florida's need for higher freshwater flows to the Apalachicola Bay and Alabama's need for hydroelectric energy.
The group issued its recommendations even as Florida is suing Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court, with Gov. Rick Scott's administration arguing that too much water is being siphoned off upstream, causing damage to the economically vital oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay.
Among the recommendations is that Florida, Georgia and Alabama should "collaboratively establish a water management institution" that would serve as a data clearinghouse and promote conflict resolution among the states and their different interests.
The group also recommended that each of the states push for higher levels of water conservation through efficiency policies and tracking and reporting data.
"Can everyone live with this?" the group's incoming chairwoman, Betty Webb of Apalachicola, asked after two days of meetings. The vote to approve ended in cheers.
The ACF Stakeholders formed in 2009 to find a solution to the water dispute, which dates back to 1990. Its members represent fishing, navigation, hydroelectric-power and community interests from the states. The members have raised $1.7 million to gather data and fund their operations privately, and any one member can block the group from taking an action.
The water-management plan will be shared with the three states' governors and relevant state and federal agencies, but it isn't binding.
"It's not a document they need to adopt, but we hope they embrace," Webb said. "We hope they will embrace it and move forward with us."
The group is urging state and federal agencies to develop more and better information about the river system to promote better decision-making in the future. The group wrote that it had "encountered challenging gaps in scientific and technical information on the basin during the course of its work and suggests a specific list of studies that, if completed, would support better decision-making in the future."
The recommendations also focus on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for managing the chain of reservoirs along the Chattahoochee River and controlling the flow of fresh water to the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay.
"Local, state and federal decision-makers should develop consistent drought management plans that define drought conditions, identify drought-response triggers, delineate responsibilities of various water-use sectors and document changes in operational strategies in response to drought conditions," the group wrote.
In particular, the group is urging the Corps of Engineers to adopt changes to its management of the reservoirs aimed at using storage more efficiently during normal conditions, mitigating the impact of droughts and quickly restoring normal conditions after droughts.
For instance, the group wrote, "The Army Corps of Engineers should study and, if feasible, implement a 2-foot increase in the pool level at Lake Lanier, increasing water storage by 7 percent, to the benefit of all users in the region."
The suggested changes also include providing two water releases -- in May and July -- timed to support higher flows and improved navigation on the Apalachicola River. The releases would also help to restore the Apalachicola Bay's mix of salt water and fresh water, which has made it a renowned incubator for oysters.
Since 2012, however, when the bay collapsed after a series of droughts, the seafood industry -- once a major economic driver for the region -- has been hard hit.
"Time is of the essence," said state Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat whose district includes Apalachicola Bay. "We've run out of time. It's time to sit down and do what's right, and what's right is to send more water down the Apalachicola River."
Meanwhile, Florida's lawsuit against Georgia is moving forward, and while Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal asked Scott for a meeting two months ago, nothing has come of it yet.
As a result of the litigation, the ACF Stakeholders hasn't made its data public since 2013, when Florida asked the U.S. Supreme Court to slow Georgia's consumption of fresh water from the river system.