Treading Water

Florida, Georgia and Alabama have been at war over water for more than a decade, but if Georgia takes more than its fair share what will happen to the Apalachicola River and Bay? Apalachicola River. Photo by Debbie Hooper
Treading WaterApalachicola’s River and Bay Hang in the Balance While Politicians Grapple Over Water 

By Jason Dehart 

It’s right out of a classic Western B movie: Bad guy cattle rancher dams up the creek, causing sodbusters downstream to suffer. Enter the laconic Good Guy, who defeats the rancher and restores the creek.

Today, the Apalachicola River and Bay are facing a similar situation. However, in this story, the “sodbusters” – local grassroots groups – are the ones making a difference.

“What’s at stake is our survival,” says Andrew Smith, executive director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, a river advocacy group founded in 1998.

Smith is referring to a long-running, tri-state water war involving Florida, Alabama and Georgia. Since about 1990, the governments of the three states have wrangled over how to appropriately share the water in the upstream rivers that form the Apalachicola River. Georgia needs water to manage the explosive growth in Atlanta; Alabama needs water for power, and Florida needs water flows to sustain the $200-million seafood and fishing industry in Apalachicola Bay.

The political struggle has been marked by meetings, negotiations and litigation in federal courts. Now the U.S. Congress might even get involved.

“I am hopeful that a congressional hearing will allow us to thoroughly examine this complex issue so that our findings can complement and advance the negotiations between the three states,” says U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida’s 2nd District, which includes this part of the Forgotten Coast.

While not a party to any litigation, the Riverkeeper group wants politicians to make water policy decisions in a cooperative, aboveboard manner.

“We don’t necessarily have a dog in the fight over who gets the water, but there has to be some cooperation among all the stakeholders within the basin in order to reach a compromise over how the water is provided to keep the Apalachicola River and bay functioning,” says Dan Tonsmeire, the “Riverkeeper” assigned to keeping the river in the public eye.

While not necessarily the “bad guy,” Georgia has a history of trying to keep more than its share of water in Lake Lanier, the manmade lake north of Atlanta that provides that city’s drinking water.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls and regulates the flow of water down the Chattahoochee River, from Lake Lanier down to Lake Seminole, a huge body of water that has shoreline in all three states.

Five years ago – in a deal made independently from the rest of the states – the Army granted Georgia more drinking water by reducing the flows out from Lake Lanier. For Apalachicola, the artificial reduction meant a flow of only 5,000 cubic feet per second, compared to the average natural flow of 22,000 cubic feet per second. Over a long period of time, such a low water flow can lead to serious ecological problems.

“The lower the flows, the saltier the bay is,” Smith says. “With increased salinity you get species that feed on oysters, like conch. As it gets saltier, they come in and decimate the oyster bars.”

The case went to litigation, and a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in February that the Army had overstepped its bounds.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue says his state will head back to the bargaining table following this reversal.

“We’re going to continue to do exactly what we’ve been doing – meet at the table with our neighbors in Alabama and Florida trying to figure out how to appropriately share in times of plenty and in times of scarcity the vital water resources that flow and fall on Georgia’s lands,” Perdue says. “I think the best place to do that is negotiation rather than courtrooms.”

But the Apalachicola Riverkeeper group remains skeptical.

“Our governor agreed to extend those talks; meanwhile, Georgia has written a proposal to the Corps to further reduce the releases from Lake Lanier another 200 cubic feet per second,” Tonsmeire says. “At the same time, they’ve relaxed watering restrictions, so it doesn’t make sense. You see the reasons for skepticism.”

Meanwhile, Smith says the people in Florida don’t see things the way Perdue does.

“From our perspective, Georgia seems to always take the approach that this water originates in their state, or at least it hits the ground in their state, and belongs to them, and they don’t really care or worry about what happens below Jim Woodruff Dam down in Florida,” Smith says.

The Apalachicola River and, more importantly, Apalachicola Bay support a seafood industry that is vital to the economy both locally and statewide. And while the water wars have been going on for 18 years, the new issue is saving the river and bay from low flows designed to save water upstream.

Tonsmeire says although the Apalachicola River’s average flow is 22,000 cubic feet per second, it varies from as high as 250,000 cubic feet per second during floods to as low as 5,000 cubic feet per second during dry times.

“That variation is critical to the productivity of everything, not just the bay but the river itself,” he says.

Historically the river has reached the 5,000 cubic-feet-per-second level – but only for relatively short periods of time.

“In the recorded history of flows on the Apalachicola, from 1921 to 2000 there were only 84 days that the river was at or below 5,000 cubic feet per second,” Smith says.

But the Army started releasing water at 5,000 cubic feet per second in May 2007 – making it the longest period of time the river has sustained such a low level.

“This has never happened before,” Tonsmeire said in February. “Usually the river will drop down for maybe a week or something then pop back up, but they have held the river at 5,000 cubic feet per second for more than half the year.”

However, thanks to a good amount of rainfall earlier this year, the Apalachicola was running much higher than that artificial amount.

“Our flows south of Lake Lanier are around 25,000 cubic feet per second, which is pretty good,” says Smokey Parrish, an Apalachicola native who has been involved in the local seafood industry for many years. “We’re seeing increased flows naturally, thanks to rain.”

Meanwhile, Smith says sustained low flows throw everything out of whack.

“Crawfish haven’t been as plentiful, bait fish haven’t been as plentiful, the marsh grass is starting to die off, and blue crab habitat is shrinking,” he says. “There’s been a tangible economic impact on the local seafood economy.”

The Riverkeeper group isn’t alone in sounding the alarm. Six affected counties – Jackson, Calhoun, Gulf, Liberty, Gadsden and Franklin – formed the County Riparian Stakeholders Coalition last year to offer their input on the state’s negotiations with Georgia and Alabama.

“There is no one better to describe the plight of the communities that depend on the Apalachicola River and Bay than one of our leading stakeholders on the Riparian Coalition,” says Boyd, who has pushed Congress to examine the dispute. 

Categories: Forgotten Coast 2008, Forgotten Coast Archive