Water Wars Pit Florida vs. Georgia in What Rick Scott Calls a 'Bold, Historic Legal Action'
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UPDATED: Gov. Rick Scott is waiting for no one. A day after federal officials issued a disaster declaration for the oyster fishery along the Northwest Florida coast, the Florida governor, with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at his side, announced the state of Florida will take historic legal action, filing a lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court to stop Georgia’s growing and "unchecked consumption of water."
Said Scott, “Because Georgia has not negotiated in good faith to fairly share the waters that flow between our two states, we are announcing today that Florida will bring suit in the U.S. Supreme Court next month to stop Georgia’s unchecked consumption of water that threatens the existence of Apalachicola fisheries and the future economic development of this region.
“This lawsuit will be targeted toward one thing," the governor said, "fighting for the future of Apalachicola. This is a bold, historic legal action for our state. But this is our only way forward after 20 years of failed negotiations with Georgia. We must fight for the people of this region. The economic future of Apalachicola Bay and Northwest Florida is at stake.”
Later in the day Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal responded in a prepared statement: "Gov. Scott's threat to sue my state in the U.S. Supreme Court greatly disappoints me after I negotiated in good faith for two years. More than a year ago, I offered a framework for a comprehensive agreement. Florida never responded. It's absurd to waste taxpayers' money and prolong this process with a court battle when I've proposed a workable solution."
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi issued the following statement, “This lawsuit is our last and best chance to save Apalachicola and the surrounding region from the devastation caused by Georgia’s overconsumption of water. I look forward to fighting for our state in the U.S. Supreme Court.”
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, added his support: “Governor Scott has taken a strong stance in support of Florida businesses by challenging the state of Georgia in the United States Supreme Court. With the future of the Apalachicola Bay region’s economy at stake, I strongly support the governor’s decision to take legal action today. This issue is not only about preserving one of Florida’s great ecosystems, it’s also about saving an important part of our economy.”
Apalachicola Bay has had its oyster harvest devastated by a lack of freshwater flow.
For almost two decades, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida have been battling over the future allocation of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basins that cross their borders.
After years of attempting to negotiate an equitable apportionment of the waters that flow through the states, the collapse of the ACF Compact in 2003 left Florida and Alabama in the same disadvantaged position. Meanwhile, Georgia had improved its standing at the expense of its neighbors by staking increased claims to the river waters for itself.
Georgia wants to have enough water to allow metro Atlanta to continue growing, while Alabama and Florida -- the downstream users -- want enough water flowing for their own economic well-being.
Georgia’s consumption is expected to nearly double to 705 million gallons per day by 2035, as Atlanta’s population and water consumption grow unchecked. That estimated daily consumption represents the approximate water volume of the entire Apalachicola Bay.
The dispute involves several federal agencies, courts and mediators, and certainly its outcome is one of the most important environmental issues in the region today.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the disaster declaration for the Apalachicola region Monday in light of the “excessive drought conditions” in the bay and the Florida Panhandle in the 2012-13 winter fishing season.
“We understand the economic significance this historic oyster fishery has for fishermen and related businesses in the Panhandle of Florida,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said on Monday. “Because the drought caused such a decline in oyster landings and a rather significant drop in revenue, the fishery qualified as a resource disaster under the nation’s fishing law.”
The disaster declaration allows Congress -- if it so desires -- to appropriate economic assistance funds for the affected community, fishermen and fishing businesses.
If funds are allocated, NOAA, part of the Commerce Department, would help, along with members of Congress, to create a spending plan for distributing the money. There was no mention of how much the assistance could total.
Oyster landings on Florida’s west coast have declined by almost 60 percent in the past year, causing a 44 percent drop in revenues, according to NOAA. The federal agency called the decrease an “unusual occurrence,” not part of a standard cyclical downturn in revenues for the industry.
Each of the three states has its own concerns about the proper allocation of water: -- Georgia, the upstream user, wants enough water to continue growing, particularly in booming metro Atlanta.
-- Florida, one of the downstream users, wants enough fresh water to reach Apalachicola Bay to sustain its multimillion-dollar shellfish industry.
-- Alabama, the other downstream user, is concerned that Atlanta’s ever-increasing thirst for water will severely limit its own use of water for power generation, fisheries and other uses.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is now revising its drought contingency plan and water control manuals for both river basins.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423.