Three Rivers, a National Treasure, and the ‘Water War’ that Refuses to End
It’s been a surprisingly rainy summer here in the Southeast, but the relief from our latest drought has not been enough to prevent a fresh flare-up in the long-running “tri-state water wars” between Georgia, Florida and Alabama. A few weeks ago, Florida Governor Rick Scott announced that his state plans a new lawsuit against Georgia, its upstream neighbor, in the U.S. Supreme Court. Newspapers in both Georgia and Florida have been full of headlines on the new skirmish ever since.
It’s still a little soon to say whether Florida will follow through with its threat of renewed legal action in the more than 20-year conflict, or—if so—what the repercussions will be for everyone concerned with water management in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin (or ACF basin for short), which the two states share. What’s clear, though, is one of the driving factors behind Scott’s announcement earlier this month: the stark ecosystem decline in the Apalachicola River and Bay.
The most striking aspect of this decline has been the literal collapse over roughly the past year of the oyster fishery in Apalachicola Bay—a stunningly picturesque estuary where oystermen still tong the oysters bars by hand to bring in their catches. For the bay’s oystermen and their families, the economic consequences of the collapse are very bad and looking worse. It is frequently pointed out that the endangered species of the Apalachicola now are not just the Gulf Sturgeon and native freshwater mussels of the river, but the oystermen of the bay too.
As regional conservation groups like Chattahoochee Riverkeeper have noted, the states’ governors may be more productive if they’ll return to the negotiating table, endorse publicly transparent discussions, and give credence to consensus-based approaches like that being taken in the ACF Stakeholders process. After all, these are complex issues, and there are many reasons behind the problems in Apalachicola Bay and throughout the entire river system. Water management in Georgia has heavily impacted freshwater inflows into the bay, and along with poor harvesting practices and other factors it has helped bring about the bay’s collapse.
Water use in Metro Atlanta, and the management of the Chattahoochee River to support it, are part of the problem; so are water consumption for Southwest Georgia’s agriculture and the low flows throughout the entire Flint River basin. This is why the Flint was #2 on this year’s America’s Most Endangered Rivers® list, and why we at American Rivers continue our partnership with Flint Riverkeeper and others to restore healthy flows and promote sustainable water supply strategies in the upper Flint River.
Meanwhile, it’s the folks down in Apalachicola who find themselves at the center of the latest battlefront in the long-running water war. Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s efforts to “save the last great bay” deserve national attention. The bay really is a national treasure. It must be saved, and everyone in the basin—regardless of which state we may live in—has a role to play.