Florida's elected leadership had little choice but to go back to court Tuesday to try to protect the state's suffering oyster industry. Gov. Rick Scott announced that Florida would sue the state of Georgia over its withdrawal of water that should be flowing south to Apalachicola Bay. And in a hearing in Apalachicola, Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio upped the pressure on Congress to intervene and resolve the water wars for good. The moves should prompt a settlement that fairly serves the Southern states while protecting a vital industry and a national food source.
Scott said "20 years of failed negotiations with Georgia" had left him no other option. Florida, Georgia and Alabama have fought for 23 years over a dam the Army Corps of Engineers built in the 1950s over the Chattahoochee River north of Atlanta. Since that time, the dam has evolved into an important drinking water resource for metropolitan Atlanta, which uses the water from the reservoir, called Lake Lanier, to supply the suburbs. But the withdrawals come at the expense of downstream users in Florida who rely on its southerly flow into the Apalachicola River.
Opening a new chapter in court is not ideal, but Florida had no other options. Georgia stood behind an appellate court victory in 2011 to forestall any attempt to move more water downstream. The Senate also rebuffed attempts by Nelson and Rubio to add tough language in new legislation that would have required allowing more water to flow to Apalachicola Bay. Florida needed to break the logjam, and Tuesday's announcement, which Scott made after touring Apalachicola Bay with Rubio and other elected officials, amounted to a strong united front in getting Georgia to the bargaining table.
The lack of water flowing downstream has devastated the Apalachicola habitat. On Monday, the Obama administration declared a fishery disaster for Florida's oyster beds along the west coast, clearing the way for economic assistance to fishing businesses and communities. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says within the last year, the oyster landings on Florida's west coast had dropped nearly 60 percent, amounting to a 44 percent loss in revenues. The drought and Georgia's abuse of Lake Lanier's water supply have produced the lowest recorded levels of water flow into Apalachicola since 1929. That has devastated a bay that produces 90 percent of the state's oysters and 10 percent of the nation's.
The disaster declaration makes Florida eligible for federal relief funds if Congress approves them, and it should without delay. But the larger focus should be on getting Georgia to realize its self-interest in a deal. The compacts the states agreed to over the years and the 2011 appeals court ruling all recognize an ambiguity in the law over Georgia's authority to withdraw water. By agreeing to a deal, Georgia could end a lengthy legal battle and gain long-term certainly over its water supply. Florida took necessary steps in that direction Tuesday, and it should keep up the pressure.