Monday, June 18, 2018
Opinion

Column: The Apalachicola water wars: Opportunity lost, now found?

In the modern water wars, fighting doesn't get us where we need to be. But science, cooperation and compromise just might.

U.S. Supreme Court Special Master Ralph Lancaster ruled against Florida last week in its lawsuit against Georgia over allocation of fresh water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin that leads to Florida's Apalachicola Bay. Florida had sought to cap Georgia's water use, asserting that Peach State farmers and cities were using too much water, causing low river flows in the Florida Panhandle.

One thing is clear: Court battles now stretching nearly three decades have not improved how we manage key resources that affect the livelihoods of people and ecosystems in Apalachicola Bay.

No outcome would have changed these truths: The Apalachicola oyster fishery ended 2016 at its lowest landings level in decades. And the next record drought, perhaps not far off given past trends and future climate change, will have crippling effects on not only oystermen, but farmers and other water users throughout the ACF basin, which also includes Alabama.

How can science help untangle the complex relationships among a changing climate, Apalachicola oysters and Georgia peanuts, and the livelihoods of the fishermen, farmers, industries and residents of the Apalachicola River basin who all depend on the same water? The people most vested in making good decisions — the farmers and fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the resources affected — can come up with the best and most creative solutions to recurring and emerging resource problems.

Apalachicola oyster fisheries are at historic lows, and agricultural and other water users along the Apalachicola River have not forgotten the effects of severe droughts in recent years. This awareness of the perilous situation creates an unprecedented opportunity for new alliances to address common concerns.

These discussions are particularly relevant given the scientific climate consensus that fresh water in the ACF basin is likely to decline due to increases in evaporation and changes in rainfall patterns, including more frequent drought and floods. As we have seen in California recently, droughts can change to floods in a matter of days. There have been at least five major droughts since 2000 in the ACF basin — each described as historic at the time — causing large economic and ecological losses. As the climate changes, droughts and low river and groundwater levels may become the new normal, not the exception.

What might work to fix these problems?

• Encourage oystermen to develop experimental methods to reduce impacts of predators on oyster populations, such as borrowing ideas from Florida's clam farmers and backyard gardeners by using cover netting to deter predators.

• Expand opportunities to integrate oyster aquaculture, oyster leases and oyster reef restoration programs into the portfolio of options for the local oyster industry. Combined, these efforts could help conserve wild oyster populations and the industry in lean years when wild populations are low and prices often high, while waiting for years when conditions improve to resume sustainable wild harvest.

• Large-scale testing of innovative agricultural practices such as including a cover crop of bahiagrass and livestock as part of the typical cotton and peanut rotation. Such approaches have been shown to improve yields for these traditional crops while also improving soil health and reducing irrigation needs. These agricultural experiments could be paired with careful studies comparing traditional agricultural practices with assessments of how surface and groundwater levels and their related ecosystems change under each farming practice.

How would these programs be funded? Who would assume the financial risk? The societal investment in the Apalachicola River basin in legal fees alone in recent years is in the tens of millions of dollars, while at the same time the people who depend on these resources have continued to suffer losses. In the fall of 2015, oystermen in Apalachicola working on an oyster bar restoration program voted to cut their daily wages from $125 to $96 to extend the program.

At the same time, legal teams in the case were increasing staff. Georgia reported hiring 34 additional attorneys in the same month, and Florida's legal fees to a single firm exceed $30 million during 2015-17.

If funding can be found to engage in these legal battles with highly uncertain outcomes, similar efforts must be made to share costs of the research and experimentation by the states and the stakeholders to identify new ways of managing the resources of key importance to the people who live and work in the ACF basin.

Let now be the time to finally end the legal battles and commit to new efforts for learning and improving decisionmaking in one of the most important river ecosystems in the eastern United States. If that happens, then the world will be our Apalachicola oyster.

Bill Pine, an associate professor at the University of Florida, has studied fish and oysters in major rivers and estuaries across the United States, including the Colorado and Apalachicola rivers, for more than 15 years. The views expressed in this essay, which he wrote exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times, are his own.

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