Congress should intervene to keep Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers from further damaging the seafood harvest and environmental habitat in Florida's Apalachicola Bay. The federal courts have sent a clear message they don't intend to bring fairness, clarity or a sense of urgency to ending the 23-year water wars among Florida, Georgia and Alabama. It's time that Congress established once and for all that the states must share a watershed that serves a distinct need for all three. And Washington needs to act before Apalachicola's oyster beds and estuary dry to the point of becoming both an ecological and an economic crisis.
The three states have battled for decades over a dam that the Corps built in the 1950s on the Chattahoochee River north of Atlanta. Constructed principally to create hydroelectric power and control flooding, the dam has evolved over the years to act as an important drinking water resource for metropolitan Atlanta, which has used water from the reservoir, called Lake Lanier, to meet the needs of fast-growing suburbs. The withdrawals have come at the expense of users downstream such as Florida's seafood industry, which relies on water flow from the entire basin to feed the Apalachicola River. The river flows south across the Florida Panhandle and empties in the Gulf of Mexico.
A federal appeals court in Atlanta handed Georgia a victory in 2011 by ruling that the city had a legal right to the water, setting aside a lower court ruling that would have opened more flow downstream. The ruling came amid a rapid deterioration of the Apalachicola habitat. The lack of freshwater from the tristate basin has sapped the bay's oyster harvest, which produces 90 percent of Florida's oysters and 10 percent of the country's. Flows into Apalachicola are at the lowest recorded levels since 1929. The state and the seafood industry are also worried about broader impacts to the valuable catches of shrimp and blue crab, and to the tourism industry that this Old Florida fishing village attracts.
Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio were unsuccessful in adding tough language to the Senate's current water supply bill that could have brought more of the water downstream. Still, the measure calls on the governors of the three states to cut a deal and for Congress to address the matter if they don't. Florida's House delegation and Gov. Rick Scott have also asked the House to include language in its version of the water bill that provides for an "adequate" flow of water to the Apalachicola region. This is a pressing issue for the state that requires ongoing and bipartisan political support.
The appellate ruling may have strengthened Georgia's hand, but that state has an interest in reaching a political solution. The court, after all, noted that the law was "ambiguous" about the extent of the Corps' authority to provide water for metro Atlanta. A deal among the three states would end the costly litigation and give Georgia more certainty over its water supply.
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The states agreed in two interim compacts in the 1990s to balance Georgia's water supply needs with those of the downstream states. But this holding pattern cannot continue. Allowing Georgia to stake claim to a federal dam and interstate waters that should operate for the benefit of the entire basin is unfair. It makes no legal, practical or economic sense, and it stands to ruin an industry and region of national importance. Florida should continue pressing its case.