Column: It's no world for these oysters

Dozens of fresh oysters were on display for Florida politicians who traveled to Apalachicola last week.
Dozens of fresh oysters were on display for Florida politicians who traveled to Apalachicola last week.
Published Aug. 15, 2013

Apalachicola Bay oysters are the finest in the world. If you can find some, eat them: It may be your last chance.

Unless members of Congress from Florida, Georgia and Alabama stop fighting like crabs in a sack and make a water deal, we'll lose the incomparably rich ecosystem that produces that oyster. We'll lose a whole way of life, and another piece of Florida's soul.

A couple of years ago, the oyster population was about 40 per square foot. Now it's six — a drop of 85 percent. A recent story in the New York Times called what's happening "a budding ecological crisis." That's wrong — the crisis is already in full bloom.

Dan Tonsmeire, executive director of the conservation group Apalachicola Riverkeeper, wants to be optimistic, but it's tough: "I hope Congress won't simply write off another bay. Right now, we're just letting it happen."

This past Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation took a field trip to Apalachicola. Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio — a Democrat and a Republican — were there, pointing out that if the rivers that feed the bay doesn't get more fresh water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, the whole estuary — one of the most biodiverse on the continent — will die. No more oysters. No more $200 million fishing industry. Thousands of people out of work.

Gwen Graham, a candidate for Florida's 2nd District in 2014, recently did a "work day" out on the bay, helping to re-shell the oyster bars. She describes the bay as a "place like no other, a beautiful place on this Earth." The oystermen, who have been working the bay for five or six generations, "feel this is their last chance."

Here's the problem: Life in the bay depends on a delicately balanced cocktail of fresh and salt water, and right now there's not enough fresh water coming down the rivers from Georgia. With too much salt water, oyster predators such as crown conchs and boring clams flourish. The oysters suffer. And oysters are critical to the whole ecosystem. They eat algae, filtering water at a rate of about two gallons per hour. When the water's clearer, sea grasses get more sunlight, which in turn boosts oxygen, protects shorelines, slows down storm surges and provides a nursery for mullet, shrimp, flounder, grouper and blue crab.

Here's the culprit: the water-hogging state of Georgia. Yes, there's been a drought. But the problem is bigger and older than the lack of rainfall over the past couple of years. Back in the mid 1950s, when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Chattahochee River to create Lake Lanier, metro Atlanta's population was under a million. Now it's pushing 6 million, sprawling over 28 counties of urban, suburban and exurban development, growing with as much forethought and decorum as kudzu.

Lake Lanier was originally intended for navigation, hydropower and flood control, but Georgia now relies on it for drinking water. Almost 25 years ago, Alabama sued the Corps for allocating more water for Atlanta, harming its hydropower and farms. Florida jumped in, citing environmental concerns. The three states have been in and out of court ever since.

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Then there's Georgia agriculture. Atlanta uses mostly surface water; Big Ag sucks from the aquifer. Once a farm has a permit, it can't be revoked. You don't even need a permit to take up to 100,000 gallons a day.

Egged on by Georgia politicos, the Corps refuses to release enough water from the two federal reservoirs that could save Apalachicola. No doubt there are fine people in the Corps, people who love children and puppies and maybe even oysters. But as an organization, the Corps' incompetence and hubris have been at the center of so many environmental and human disasters — dredging and damming the Red River to accommodate nonexistent barge traffic, wrecking Lake Okeechobee and almost killing the Everglades, the monumental failures that nearly drowned New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina — that you'd think they might want to redeem themselves. You'd think the recent declaration by the federal government of a "fisheries disaster" might focus their minds. Instead, they seem hell-bent on presiding over the complete collapse of Apalachicola Bay.

As for Georgia, well, Georgia officials don't care. They won't even negotiate over more flow. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue huffed that no mere mollusk "deserves more water than the humans and children and babies of Atlanta."

In May this year, when the Water Resources Development Act came up, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., threatened to hold hostage $905 million in Everglades restoration money if Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio succeeded in giving Congress more control over the two federal reservoirs at the head of the Apalachicola-Chattahochee-Flint system. The amendment died.

That leaves the House. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, currently charged with crafting a water bill, has six members from Florida: Lois Frankel, Daniel Webster, Trey Radal, John Mica, Corrine Brown and Steve Southerland, whose congressional district includes Apalachicola. Will Southerland, up for re-election in 2014, bestir himself on behalf of his constituents?

Gov. Rick Scott, who also wants to get re-elected in 2014, has announced that the state of Florida will sue the state of Georgia over water in the U.S. Supreme Court. This will probably take years. Apalachicola doesn't have years.

Atlanta wants to increase water withdrawals from the current 360 million gallons per day to 705 million gallons per day through 2030. If the Corps allows this, the oysters, the bay, the whole complex ecosystem, is finished.

"You lose the oysters, you lose the water quality," says Dan Tonsmeire. "They talk about bringing back Chesapeake Bay. Well, Chesapeake Bay now has 1 percent of the oyster beds it used to. It's not just the ecosystem, it's the community, too. People are already moving away. You'll never get that back."

Diane Roberts is author of "Dream State," a memoir of Florida. She teaches at Florida State University. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.