The US Senate passed a bill last week that could be a death warrant for Apalachicola Bay and the local seafood industry.

The bill now heads to the House.

The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) has been updated every two years since 1974. WRDA is the main vehicle for authorizing water projects to be studied, planned and developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer (Corps). It is also the legislative vehicle for making policy changes with respect to the Corps’ water resource projects and programs.

Although praised by many industry leaders, the WRDA for 2013 has been criticized for both its failure to address budgetary shortfalls and its lack of environmental consciousness. Part of the act is a provision to “streamline” environmental assessments required before Corps projects can be implemented.

In a press release, Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation said, “Unfortunately, language in this bill undermines the bedrock environmental principle that the federal government should look before it leaps. Time and time again, common-sense environmental reviews have shed light on expensive, damaging proposals that are not in our national interest.”

Florida Senators Mario Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D) supported a draft of WRDA from U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., that required Congressional approval for any Corps alteration of 5 percent or more to an existing reservoir plan. This would have made Congress a party to decisions over Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona and many other reservoirs around the country.

The draft failed and the language was removed from the draft of WRDA that passed 83-14 on May 18, giving Georgia a clear victory over Florida in the water wars. Nelson voted for the bill, Rubio against it.

Nelson said the amendment was blocked partly because Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson “threatened to tie up Everglades restoration and every other project in the broader water bill.”

Expressing disappointment with the outcome, Rubio said, “Floridians in Apalachicola Bay have known all too well how this dispute has created economic havoc for our once vibrant oyster industry, as well as all the other industries that are so dependent on the harvesting and sale of that great resource.

“Despite this setback, I will not give up on restoring flows towards the Apalachicola Bay. I’ve requested a field hearing in the Apalachicola Bay area so that my colleagues in the Senate can better understand why this issue simply cannot continue to be held hostage to the broken politics of Washington.”

Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire said his organization has now largely pinned their hopes on District 2 Rep. Steve Southerland.

At Tuesday’s county commission meeting, Director of Administrative Services, Alan Pierce presented commissioners with copies of a letter written by Southerland and signed by 25 other members of Congress to the Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure informing the Committee that these members of Congress believe the US Corps of Engineers has overstepped its authority by re-allocating water from Lake Lanier without proper Congressional oversight.  The members are asking the Committee “to ensure that a legislative solution is included in the Water Resources Development Act.”   

Pierce said, “The Committee is drafting a new Act and apparently has the authority to include legislative solutions to the 20 year ACF water war.

Commissioners instructed Pierce to send a letter to Southerland and Governor Rick Scott thanking them for their efforts on the county’s behalf.

Tonsmeire said the Riverkeepers “are working with the folks in the Alabama River Basin to help them understand that requiring more water at Florida line will benefit them too.”

He said Atlanta’s stranglehold on Apalachicola/Flint/Chattahoochee river system has a bad effect on industry, agriculture and communities in Alabama and South Georgia because many industries and municipalities in those areas use water from the river system and then return it. A sufficient mixing zone is needed to reintroduce water containing chemical contaminates or that has been heated. When the river is low, users are sometimes forced to house contaminated water until there is an adequate mixing zone available and that costs money. Maintaining adequate flow benefits these users and doesn’t diminish the water arriving at the Apalachicola Bay.

Tonsmeire said the Corps has taken the stand that their only responsibility is to maintain sufficient flow to comply with the Endangered Species Act (5000 cubic feet / second).

“This is most important in drought years,” said Tonsmeire. “Last year, the bay crashed due to lack of fresh water which shows that 5,000 cfs is not enough. This year, the flow is nearly normal but in dry years, the Apalachicola River and Bay take the brunt of the punishment so the reservoirs serving Atlanta can stay full. It’s just a matter of time before they literally collapse the bay for good. You can only stress those eco-systems so much before they don’t come back.”