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Apalachicola river is named ‘most endangered’ waterway in US

April 23, 2016
The Apalachicola River system has for years been part of a dispute between Georgia, Florida and Alabama over water rights. Photo: Annette Birch

The Apalachicola River has for years been part of a dispute between Georgia, Florida and Alabama over water rights.

By Annette Birch

Published by The Capital Post on May 4, 2016,

The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River was on April 12 named the country’s most endangered river by American River, a national advocacy organization. For the people of Georgia, Florida and Alabama, who rely on the water, it is an unpleasant wake up call.

“It is the last straw for the Apalachicola River system,” said Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire for Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an advocacy group for the Apalachicola river and the bay.

Georgia, Florida and Alabama has been fighting for 25 years over, who has the right to the water from the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola rivers. The conflict has escalated over the last decade as Georgia has been using more and more water coming out of Lake Lanier to supply drinking water to Atlanta’s growing population, leaving less freshwater to come down the river to Florida’s oysters and wildlife, and Alabama’s hydropower. In October 2013, Florida decided to file suit against Georgia beforeoysters1_pininterest the U.S. Supreme Court alleging that Georgia’s increased use of water for Atlanta’s growing population is hurting its oyster industry, which has dropped from three million pounds of oyster meat in 2012 to one million in 2013.

Georgia contended in its reply to the Supreme Court that the state has not unfairly drained its freshwater resources. Rather, the decline of the oyster population was caused by drought conditions and illegal overharvesting in the Apalachicola Bay.

The outcome of the suit before the Supreme Court could have a substantial effect on other water wars in the United States, like the water war in the West over the Colorado River, shared by seven U.S. states and Mexico, or the water war in the Great Lakes, shared by eight states and Canada.

“A win for Florida could be a lesson for other states to improve water management,” said Gil Rogers, senior attorney with the Southeastern Environmental Law Center.

It is a problem of geography

Florida U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and Florida state Sen. Bill Montford is joining American Rivers and environmental groups from Georgia, Florida and Alabama, in calling for a water-sharing agreement that gives a priority to the health of the river basin. Florida is dependent on enough water coming downstream to support its diverse eco-system and oyster industry, which previously has supported 90 percent of the Florida oyster harvest, according to Tampa Bay Times of April 12, 2016.

“It is really a problem of geography. Georgia exerts influence over the core,” said Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth for Chattahoochee IMG_1674Riverkeeper, an advocacy organization for the Chattahoochee river.

Ulseth explained that Georgia can control the water because the river originates in North Georgia and flows and water storage to a large extent is controlled through the Buford Dam at Lake Lanier. More than 70 percent of metro Atlanta’s over four million people rely on drinking water from the river, according to Atlanta Regional Commission. As the city is growing with up to 60,000 people a year, Georgia has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the water, for more water to be stored in Lake Lanier in order to ensure that there is drinking water enough for everyone.

We have to work together

Right now there is enough water in the river for everyone because of the recent rains. However, history shows that the states starts bickering when the water is sparse, like it happened during the droughts of 2007 and 2011.

“The problem is that Georgia has no drought management; they just keep taking the same amount of water and the ACE [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] supports them,” Tonsmeire said. He called on Georgia and Alabama to work together with Florida to find a solution suitable for all.

“We can reverse this disastrous trend in the ACF system and recover the ecological functions in the Apalachicola without compromising Georgia’s water supply, if we act together, now.”

Florida and Alabama has consistently criticized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the Apalachicola-NotshuttingthebaydownChattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river system and basins, for relying on a 2011 ruling from a federal court of appeals that said Atlanta has a legal right to water from Lake Lanier. Georgia has adopted a state-wide water management plan and implemented regional water plans, which would put more conservation staff in local government, guarantee more audits, make assessments of water availability and forecasts of water and waste water needs. However, Ulseth said Georgia could do more to conserve water.

“While the metro Atlanta region has made significant strides in water conservation, we are far from reaching our true conservation potential. All river users must pursue aggressive water conservation measures to ensure that we are using these precious water resources as wisely as possible,” Ulseth said in a press release on April 12.

More waste water creates new needs

The problem is not only that Georgia needs more drinking water, but as Atlanta is discharging more waste water from its growing population, flows are needed to assimilate wastewater while sustaining downstream recreational opportunities and IMG_1684fish and wildlife habitat. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who controls the flows of the Tri-State river system, has in its latest draft manual released in September 2015 allowed the flows to be set lower for the ACF river and keep more water in Lake Lanier for the population of Atlanta.

“They do not have to keep all the water in Lake Lanier but could manage it more in accordance with balancing all downstream needs, including water quality, recreation, fish and wildlife, and communities,” said Laura Hartt, Water Policy Director at Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

Hartt added that if Georgia increased their waste water technology they did not need so much flow. This could satisfy Atlanta’s need for lower flow levels, but it would not help the Apalachicola Bay. The bay still needs adequate freshwater flows to maintain decent salinity conditions for its oysters and other flora and fauna.

Shut the whole system down

However, overharvesting, bacteria and oil spills could also be contributing factors to a dwindling oyster population in Apalachicola Bay. Florida has already restricted permits for water use and limited fishing to four days a week and the catch limit from 20 sacks per day down to five. But Tonsmeire said that Florida could manage the water better.

“In my opinion, they should close the whole system down. Florida has got some money after the oil spill. They could use that to pay the oyster fishers and producers to set out and not to harvest oysters for a couple of years. This would give the system a change to regenerate,” Tonsmeire said.

Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, agreed with Tonsmeiret that something needed to be done.

“We can’t survive as a fishing village. Our industry can’t survive,” said Shannon Hartsfield to Tampa Bay Times on April 12, 2016.

Sustainable water plan is going nowhere

Florida decided not to close the Apalachicola Bay down. Neither did it nor Georgia and Alabama adopt an alternative plan suggested on May 2015 by the ACF Stakeholders, a group of water users from Georgia, Florida and Alabama in the ACFStakeholderplan2Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin. The plan called on local, state and federal authorities to provide drought management plans and on the Corps to increase water storage in Lake Lanier and West Point Lake as well as provide two
pulsed releases for flow down the Apalachicola river in May and July.

“It is not a perfect plan, but it is a great place to start,” Tonsmeire said.

Instead, Congresswoman Gwen Graham (D-Fl.) introduced in May last year the Apalachicola Restoration Act in Congress. The bill would require the Corps to consider freshwater flows to the Apalachicola River basin as part of the corps’ water management plans. It has been supported by 21 members from both parties of the 29 Florida delegation. Yet, the bill has been stock in committee since its introduction. It has not been supported by any members from Georgia or Alabama.

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Florida is looking to the Court

In the meantime, Florida is looking to the U.S. Supreme Court to save their oyster industry and the environment of ApalachicolaRestorationAct3Apalachicola Bay. Rogers hinted that a win for Florida could be good for the bay but is concerned that if the court leaves it to Georgia to work out how to send more water to Florida, Georgia could decide to build more reservoirs rather than pursue more water conservation.

“It would really depend on what that win looked like. The Supreme Court has a lot of discretion and it is not likely that it would go into detail with how to regulate more water to Florida – if it decides for Florida,” Rogers said.

Still, it may take some time before the case is finalized. For even though deadline for the written briefs are in June, the deadline may be pushed off as the parties say they need more time to prepare. An independent mediator has also held confidential talks with Georgia and Florida officials, including representatives from the governors’ offices, according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution on April 12, 2016.  However, Rogers does not think the parties will settle the dispute any time soon.

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