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Governor sues Georgia over water as Rubio and Nelson blame Army for lost oyster industry

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Published Aug. 14, 2013

A day after federal officials declared Apalachicola's oyster industry to be a disaster, Gov. Rick Scott announced Florida is going to sue Georgia for using too much water and causing the problem.

Meanwhile, Florida's two senators blasted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for giving Atlanta's lawns, taps and toilets preference over Florida seafood.

But the disaster declaration, the lawsuit and the attack on the Corps won't provide any immediate help in Apalachicola, where a seafood industry official estimates that in just the past year an estimated 60 people have quit the oyster business and moved away.

"It's breaking our families up," said Apalachicola oysterman Ricky Banks, who said his grandfather and father both followed the trade, and began training him when he was 5. Now his own brother has quit oystering and moved to Arkansas looking for work, he said.

Banks provided the most impassioned testimony at a Tuesday hearing in Apalachicola organized by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. He predicted Atlanta residents would not stop hogging the water until "it's running down their streets and they don't want no more."

Meanwhile, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said Scott's decision to sue his state in the U.S. Supreme Court "greatly disappoints me after I negotiated in good faith for two years." Deal said that with Scott running for re-election, "the timing seems to work for political purposes."

Florida, Georgia and Alabama have been wrangling for more than 20 years over where Atlanta gets its water, a fight dubbed the Tri-State Water War. To officials in Florida and Alabama, Atlanta is at fault for wasting water and failing to plan for its future. Atlanta officials insist they're now doing more water conservation than anywhere else in the nation, and Florida and Alabama's water demands are unreasonable.

Atlanta, built as a railroad hub atop a high ridge, is the largest American city without a major body of water nearby. It cannot pump water from underground because it sits above nonporous hard rock. Instead, Atlanta relies on a pair of federal reservoirs. One of them, Lake Sidney Lanier, provides three-fourths of its water. Lake Lanier was created in the 1950s when the Corps of Engineers built a dam on the Chattahoochee River.

The Chattahoochee flows south to join Alabama's Flint River and become the Apalachicola River from the Florida state line to Apalachicola Bay. The bay produces 90 percent of all of Florida's oysters, and 10 percent of all the oysters consumed in the U.S.,

Amid court battles, congressional power plays, even a brief bid to move Tennessee's state line to give Georgia even more water, nobody has come up with a compromise that suits everyone. And Georgia's consumption is expected to nearly double by 2035 to 705 million gallons per day.

In the past two years, a drought and Georgia's water use have cut the flow of fresh water to the bay, and the oyster population has collapsed. Although Florida politicians from both parties hailed Monday's declaration from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that Apalachicola is a disaster area, Nelson and Rubio acknowledged that it comes with no money to help. They're hopeful of finding some eventually.

The Corps manages the flow in and out of Lake Lanier, which means it controls the Apalachicola, too. Col. Jon Chytka told Nelson and Rubio that his orders say he must operate Lake Lanier according to the law Congress passed authorizing its construction. That law mentions hydroelectric power and Atlanta's water supply, but says nothing about Florida oysters.

The Corps is updating the reservoir's operations manual, so Nelson asked if that might provide some relief for Florida. Corps officials said they would consider it — but even the environmental impact study won't be done before 2015.

Florida and Alabama have sued the Corps before, winning at the federal court level and then seeing an appeals court reverse the decision and toss it back to the Corps. So suing Georgia itself "is our only way forward after 20 years of failed negotiations with Georgia," Scott said in announcing the latest legal gambit. "We must fight for the people of this region."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this story. Craig Pittman can be reached at