Underscoring the ubiquitous nature of the problem, are three key Florida Rivers - the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and the Flint. They have been at the heart of litigation between the Sunshine State and two neighboring states for more than 25 years. A national environmental group recently ranked the three waterways as collectively the country's most “endangered river basin.”.”
According to Washington D.C. based, American Rivers, a respected environmental group, , “outdated water management and spiraling water demand in Florida, Georgia and Alabama has brought Apalachicola Bay to the brink of an irreversible, ecological collapse," The group says the governors of the three named party states must reach a water-sharing agreement. The group also says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must “improve its management of the river system.”
“It’s time to move from water conflict to a new era of cooperation,” Ben Emanuel of American Rivers said in a statement released ahead of an anticipated official announcement.
“This basin is ground zero for water supply challenges, but it is also fertile ground for new and sustainable water supply solutions, “he added
the Flint River in Georgia, and the Chattahoochee in Georgia and Alabama converge at the Florida state line to form the Apalachicola River.
Dan Tonsmeire of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper group recently told reporters that while the decline is lamentable, he hopes the negative ranking will help focus renewed attention on Army Corps' operations. His group held a press conference earlier this week in Tallahassee with U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and state Sen. Bill Montford.
Last week the Sun Bay reported that Florida and Georgia are participating in confidential mediation involving the waterway, According to documents submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court over the lawsuit filed by the state of Florida in 2013, the Court has said the parties should renew efforts to reach a settlement. Alabama, is involved in a separate legal battle over the waterway, isn't a party to the case under mediation...
Leading up filing the litigation, in 2013 Gov. Rick Scott in 2013 said that overuse in Georgia caused a lack of freshwater flows into Apalachicola Bay resulting in the collapse of Florida’s oyster population. Georgia, in its counterclaim and answer to the complaint asserted that Florida's mismanagement of water, bad public policies and overfishing created the bay's woes.
The states have been embroiled in litigation since 1990, the year Alabama filed a federal lawsuit against the Army Corps seeking to block a plan to provide more water from the river system to municipalities in the Atlanta area.
At the heart of the issue is Atlanta’s burgeoning population and corresponding need for a reliable water supply. These increasing demands by the city have clashed with reservoir lakefront property owners and other downstream water users including hydropower, shipping interests and farmers. Also at stake is are endangered species protection for threatened mussels and sturgeon found in the Apalachicola River and some of its tributaries.
A water-sharing agreement worked to keep the states out of court from 1998 to 2003, but those negotiations eventually collapsed. Just last year in September, the Army Corps proposed allocating 593 million gallons of water daily from the Chattahoochee River and Lake Lanier for Atlanta-area municipalities. This represented an increase of approximately 75 percent over the water usage levels in place when the new proposals were made.
These proposals exacerbated the tensions between Florida and the Peach State. Governor Scott’s administration decried the Corps’ plans saying the reduced water flows are dramatically affecting the health of the Apalachicola River and Bay. State officials state that the Army Corps plan “fails to evaluate the cumulative impacts of Georgia's water use.”
Tonsmeire insists that the Army Corps is acting in a "clueless" manner by failing to consider the 2012 drought’s effect on water management policies and the effect this has produced on the health of bay's oysters. The Corps is currently updating its water control manual for the reservoirs and dams it operates along the Chattahoochee River.
"They are saying that there proposed operational changes won't be that much worse," Tonsmeire said. "Based on what has transpired in the past, I'm finding it unbelievable, really."
A spokesman for the Army Corps in Mobile Alabama - Patrick Robbins – told reporters that Georgia has reduced its request for additional water for Atlanta from 705 million gallons per day to 673 million gallons. These levels are sought through December 2040.
Katherine Zitsch of the Atlanta Regional Commission issued a statement addressing the ranking of the Apalachicola river basin. "Metropolitan Atlanta is a good steward of the water in the ACF (Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint) Basin and we strongly disagree with the report’s portrayal of our water use."
Responding, Tonsmeire said he hopes the ranking will send a clear message to the states that the time to act responsibly has reached a critical stage.
"What we are aiming at is to try to get the three governors to quit using it the Apalachicola river system and its tributaries like a political football and get serious about doing something," he said. "The Apalachicola doesn't have any more time."
Jud Turner, Director of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, disagreed with Tonsmeire and Riverkeepers ranking saying the competing usages and users of the water supply doesn’t necessarily make the river a “most endangered” waterway. He also pointed out the federal dams are specifically authorized for multiple water use purposes including flood control and municipal water needs.
“Additional improvement in operations of these dams can be made to better meet this range of water needs," Turner said in a written statement.
If Riverkeepers is to be believed the damage to Florida’s estuaries and oyster beds is accelerating. In 2002, the Apalachicola River was ranked 11th on the group's list of endangered rivers. The tri-state river basin ranked fifth in 2000 so the move to “most endangered” 16 years later is significant.