Florida officials should use "every arrow in their quiver" to restore the flow of fresh water to the sapped Apalachicola River and Bay, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Monday - including firing up another lawsuit in the state's water war with Georgia.
"Under the current regulatory regime, I am not optimistic that the Apalachicola Bay oyster industry will recover in the near term," Putnam said at a post-legislative session meeting with reporters where he also talked about the citrus industry and the state's water supply plan as well as the river system. "We need to be as aggressive as we can be in every venue ... to resolve this issue."
More than two decades of legal wrangling between Florida, Georgia and Alabama over the amount of water released downstream ended last year when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal of a federal court decision that gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the authority to manipulate the water levels of Lake Lanier to meet Atlanta's water needs.
Since then, a prolonged drought and the lack of freshwater making its way down the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system has contributed to the collapse of the oyster population in Apalachicola Bay, imperiling the region's economy.
"The things that we warned the court would be the consequences of inadequate water flow, but had not yet realized, have now been realized," Putnam said. "So you would hope that would open up another opportunity to get back in court."
Dan Tonsmeire, executive director of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, said one legal avenue left is for Florida to sue Georgia in the Supreme Court - an approach he and others pressed for a decade ago. But doing that now, he said, would be mean another eight to 10 years lost in courtrooms with an uncertain outcome.
"We just don't have that time," he said. "We might be praying over a dead horse by then."
The issue, Tonsmeire said, needs to move beyond Lake Lanier, which is less than five percent of the entire river-system basin, and address the entire watershed. Apalachicola Riverkeeper and others are pressing for legislation to be added to the U.S. House version of 2013 Water Resource Development Act that would require the Corps to provide for the freshwater flow needs of the Apalachicola River, its bay fisheries and the local economy.
Congress has given Georgia a tremendous advantage over Florida receiving a fair share of water allocation by leaving Apalachicola River and Bay needs out of the Corps' directives, Tonsmeire said. "Neither the Corps nor Georgia have a desire to sacrifice Apalachicola River and Bay, but they also have never been held accountable for them or the economic impacts to our region around the river and bay and legislation that does that is needed."
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., last month made a push to include the amendment in the Senate version of the bill, but that effort failed.
"The problem is the federal appeals court sided with Georgia, so there's no way to compel them to come to the table to negotiate an interstate water compact," Nelson said in a statement.
In a May 13 letter, U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., urged the Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Bill Shuster, R-Pa., to address what he believes is an encroachment of the Corps' authority to limit water flow of the Apalachicola without congressional approval.
Gov. Rick Scott authored a similar letter to Shuster saying the river has been "deprived" of the much needed fresh water by the actions of the Corps. Oyster harvest levels and population surveys were at an all-time low during 2012 and the state is applying for federal fishery disaster assistance.
Putnam acknowledged that for the fishermen in Franklin County, time is running out, and said he is working to provide funding for research and other aquaculture opportunities.
"(They) certainly don't have 23 years to wait on the lawyers to get this worked out," Putnam said. "They're out of work right now."