Column: Florida oyster crisis at a breaking point

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, right, with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, announced in Apalachicola that the state was suing Georgia over limited freshwater flows that have damaged oyster fisheries.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, right, with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, announced in Apalachicola that the state was suing Georgia over limited freshwater flows that have damaged oyster fisheries.
Published Aug. 22, 2013

Earlier this year, a lot of people had a good laugh when I reached for a drink of water in the middle of a nationally televised speech. But a much more serious water-related issue has only just begun to receive the national attention it deserves.

For years, the water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint water basin has been and continues to be mismanaged by the state of Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers. Freshwater supplies that have flowed for hundreds of years down the basin and emptied into the Apalachicola Bay have since been diverted. This water is now stored in so many different reservoirs that a once-vibrant oyster fishery, dependent on these flows to keep out saltwater predators, is now on the verge of collapse, and the livelihood of many fishermen is at stake. The situation has become so dire that the U.S. Commerce Department recently declared a disaster for the oyster fishery.

The fight over water is nothing new in our country. But most of our water supplies are now managed according to state compacts, or agreements between state governors on how water is allocated in any specific region. A tri-state compact is exactly what we need in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin — an agreement among Georgia, Alabama and Florida that recognizes the unique needs of each state and allocates our limited water resources accordingly.

Unfortunately, such an agreement remains elusive. The result is a status quo where Georgia takes an unfair share of the water to the detriment of hard-working Floridians in and around the Apalachicola Bay area. Last week, we brought Congress to our state, holding a committee field hearing to highlight how the poor management of water has impacted our citizens. It was heartbreaking to listen to Floridians who have worked these shores for generations and are now finding their source of income suddenly and inexplicably pulled out from under them.

During the hearing they expressed an understandable frustration at the fact that their livelihoods have been shattered by a purely man-made disaster. Their message was loud and clear: Apalachicola Bay simply cannot wait any longer for a solution.

Florida's leaders at the federal and state level can and must provide this solution. I remain committed to using every tool at our disposal to correct the poor management of these water flows. I will continue to pursue legislation in Congress and work with the Army Corps of Engineers in drafting the basin's water control manual.

I also support the litigation filed by Gov. Rick Scott against the state of Georgia that is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, recognizing the economic damage that has already been done, I will work to ensure the families and businesses impacted by this disaster receive the assistance they deserve. I will also continue to work with my colleagues from Alabama and Georgia to find a constructive tri-state solution.

The Apalachicola Bay region that produces 90 percent of Florida's oysters and 10 percent of the oysters supplied to the entire country has reached a breaking point, and the issue deserves the full attention of Florida's elected leaders. We need a positive resolution to this crisis that ensures the basin receives the water it needs. After decades of disagreement, it is time for this issue to be resolved once and for all.

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U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is a Republican from Florida. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.