The problems that have devastated Apalachicola Bay are complicated, but the solution is simple: Congress must direct the US Army Corps of Engineers to release enough water to restore the health of the Apalachicola River, bay and estuary.
The best way to implement this mandate is through the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013 (WRRDA). Anything short of a Congressional mandate that requires the Corps to act constitutes willful destruction of our highly-productive, world-renowned fishery, and the communities that depend on it for their livelihoods.
Earlier this summer, Florida’s senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio tried unsuccessfully to get language into the Senate’s version of WRRDA. Their initial efforts were thwarted by Georgia’s powerful and well-connected senior senators. Rubio and Nelson took their work on behalf of the bay to the next level by bringing a US Senate Committee Field Hearing to Apalachicola in August. That hearing and the official federal declaration that Apalachicola Bay has suffered a commercial fisheries disaster brought national attention to the plight of our seafood workers. We are grateful for the senators’ work.
Next, it was Rep. Steve Southerland’s turn to try to convince his colleagues to put this language into the House version of the WRRDA bill. And try he did, with an impassioned plea to the House Transportation Committee on behalf of his Panhandle constituents. “Countless oystermen, coastal businesses, and hardworking families have seen their way of life destroyed by decreased water flows into the Apalachicola River and Bay,” said Southerland.
Steve Southerland knows that if the Apalachicola River does not get the freshwater flow it needs to survive, the economic productivity of Apalachicola Bay and the $5.6 billion recreational and commercial seafood industry in the eastern Gulf of Mexico it supports will be history. This destruction is all the more unthinkable because it can be prevented through immediate congressional intervention.
If Alabama, Florida, and Georgia would work together to establish a foundation of collaboration and negotiation, a tri-state water-sharing compact could be developed that would help Florida. But after decades of waiting for the states to act and the announcement that Florida is going to seek a solution from the Supreme Court, a compact is not likely to happen. Even if the state’s lawsuit is successful it will be too late to save the Apalachicola River and Bay.
Congress must step in and act. Georgia has the water, and for the moment, Georgia has the power. Absent a congressional mandate to the Corps, Georgia has no incentive to negotiate.
It’s now up to Representative Southerland to lead the charge. He clearly understands the challenge ahead: “Make no mistake: there are no overnight fixes to this problem… With countless lives and livelihoods at stake, I am committed to standing shoulder-to shoulder with local leaders and the citizens who live along Apalachicola River and Bay to keep the water flowing.”
Rep. Southerland did not leave empty-handed from his most recent efforts for the Apalachicola River and Bay. He has begun the process for an investigation of the Corps’ management by the US Government Accountability Office and he has received a commitment for another congressional hearing to closely examine the Corps’ management of the river’s flow.
But it is essential that Congress act now to protect our magnificent river and bay, a one-of-a-kind ecological-treasure. With the House of Representatives poised to vote on its version of WRRDA, we are counting on Rep. Southerland to overcome politics and ensure that the final WRRDA bill clearly directs the Corps of Engineers to send Florida the water it deserves and the water it needs. It won’t be an easy lift, but it will be worth the effort.
Congress must act now. We cannot let the communities die that depend on these vital natural resources. We can’t let the Apalachicola River and Bay die. Not on our watch.
Dan Tonsmeire has served as Riverkeeper and executive director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper since May 2010.