A crew of Florida’s most powerful politicians gathered at the water’s edge Tuesday in Apalachicola and brought out the heavy artillery in the state’s long simmering water wars with Georgia and Alabama.

The unusual visit by Governor Rick Scott, and both U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, in the small coastal town came less than a day after the state received the go-ahead on the request for a commercial fishery failure it first sought nearly a year ago. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker on Monday declared a failure for the oyster fishery along the entire west coast of Florida, which is primarily centered in Apalachicola Bay.

Nelson, a Democrat, and Rubio, the Republican junior senator, sat side by side before a packed audience in the courthouse annex as they conducted a rare Senate subcommittee field hearing on the adverse effects that diminished river flows have had on the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay.

The buzz that followed the two-hour hearing - in which both the Army Corps of Engineers’ water management policies and the ever-increasing water consumption by users upriver drew a hefty share of harsh criticism - was still in the air at lunchtime when Scott announced at the riverfront that Florida plans to file suit next month in the U.S. Supreme Court to halt Georgia’s “unchecked and growing consumption of water.”

Scott, flanked by Rubio and Cong. Steve Southerland (R-Panama City), said negotiations with Georgia officials have proved fruitless. “Georgia has not negotiated in good faith. They’ve kept our water,” he said. “It’s been going on for decades. Now it’s coming to a stop.”

The governor said Alabama has yet to decide whether to join the suit, which seeks injunctive relief against what he called “Georgia’s unmitigated and unsustainable upstream consumption of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint River Basins.

“This lawsuit will be targeted toward one thing - fighting for the future of Apalachicola. This is a bold, historic legal action for our state,” Scott said. “But this is our only way forward after 20 years of failed negotiations with Georgia. We must fight for the people of this region. The economic future of Apalachicola Bay and Northwest Florida is at stake.”

Nelson, who was visiting the Three Servicemen Statue Detail at the time of Scott’s announcement, applauded the suit. “It’s not only that water is being held back from the Chattahoochee, the state of Georgia has no regulations controlling the flow of water in the Flint River basin,” he said. “Florida has had water regulations in place since 1972. A farmer on the state line must get permission to drill a well in Florida, but he can cross the state line into Georgia and drill as many wells as he wants.”


Blasting the Corps

In assuming the lead role at the hearing, part of a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Nelson blasted the Corps’ persistence stance that it can only consider congressionally authorized purposes, such as flood control, navigation, energy and environmental impact, when it allocates water.

“It’s about following the law and that’s what we have to do,” said Col. Jon Chytka, the newly appointed commander of the Corps’ Mobile District, which administers the five federal, and 10 non-federal, reservoirs in the Apalachicola – Chattahoochee - Flint basin.

He said the Environmental Impact Statement, which will address the effect on three endangered mussels and the Gulf sturgeon, won’t be completed until early 2016. “The reason we don’t think we can expedite it is the technical complexities,” said Chytka.

“Anything that needs to be expedited can be expedited,” said Nelson. “You’re at a disadvantage here, just 13 days on the job. I want you to know I have talked to the generals not only at the Atlanta office but also all the way up to the commanding general of the Corps. I want to know why did they send you? Why didn’t they send the generals I’ve been talking to?

“This is the kind of stuff we’ve been hearing for years as we’ve been trying to solve this problem,” said the senator. “I want the Corps at the Mobile level to understand how serious this matter is. This is a dire situation that has been going on for years, and it still hasn’t been able to be resolved.”

In this middle portion of the hearing, the senators also heard a report on the fishery disaster declaration from Emily Menashes, acting director of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Office of Sustainable Fisheries.

She said a combination of drought, reduced flows downriver and increased salinities in the Apalachicola Bay estuary contributed to the fishery failure, and that it would now be up to Congress to decide whether to appropriate funds to mitigate those damages.

“We generally work with the state and affected communities to identify resources they would need,” Menashes said, noting that direct revenue impacts, as well as social and economic impacts, may be factored in.

She said funds could be allocated for direct assistance to the industry, as well as such things as oyster reef restoration, research, monitoring, and economic development. “It’s a very broad set of activities that could be funded,” said Menashes.

Like his colleagues, Rubio said he planned to support a congressional appropriation but cautioned not to lose sight of the long-term issue. “I think it’s fantastic we could find funding for people who are suffering,” he said. “That’s going to help people who are hurting to survive, but to sustain themselves this water issue has to be solve.

“It’s not enough, we can’t stop here,” he said. “I don’t want a lot of solution on the front end and forgetting that we still have this water issue. This doesn’t necessarily solve that.”

Nelson said additional BP money could also help the industry. “We’ll be looking at every possible source of funding,” he said. “Perhaps once the judge in federal court in New Orleans decides on the fine and the money starts to flow through the Restore Act, perhaps that would be another source of funding.”


Taking on Georgia

Also on that panel was Jon Steverson, executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District, who outlined steps that the city and state have taken to maximize and conserve freshwater flow into the state.

But, he stressed, Florida cannot control the volume of water entering the state. He said Georgia now controls more than 90 percent of the water withdrawn from the ACF system, and that the metro Atlanta area uses three times the water for public supply than all 16 counties and municipalities of the Florida Panhandle combined.

“The good Lord giveth and the Corps and Georgia taketh away,” Steverson said.

“At a minimum, the Corps should mandate that Georgia develop strict conservation measures as a condition to entertaining any further withdrawals from the ACF system,” he said, stressing that the Corps’ current efforts to revise their draft water control plan offers a chance “to restructure the priority system they use in existing operations to assign greater weight to downstream needs and strive to mimic historic flow patterns.”

The hearing opened with an appearance by Southerland, who provided background on the legislative progress over the past two years regarding securing more water for the oyster fishery. After reading his prepared statement, he offered some personal remarks.

“This is not just about oysters, this is about people,” he said. “We are not just growing oysters here. We have the responsibility for growing families. This is affecting families, it has affected children.

“It is imperative we find the funding to do the responsible thing,” said Southerland. “It’s time for Florida to get its fair shake.”

The hearing closed with an appearance by three representatives of the local community, Dan Tonsmeire, executive director of the Apalachicola RiverKeeper, Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, and Dr. Karl Havens, a professor of food and agricultural sciences at the University of Florida who has been working closely with an oyster recovery task force formed after the BP oil spill.

“There’s never been a period as low as in the last two years,” said Havens. “The river fell below the historical record; it was unprecedented.”

He said rebuilding 1,000 acres of the bay’s substrate with oyster shells could reduce the decade it will take to recover down to two or three years.

“We don’t see any hope in the near future,” said Hartsfield. “We don’t have six more months; we don’t have that. We need to open that river back up and get us some flow down here.”

Hartsfield yielded the remainder of his time to Ricky Banks, the vice president of the seafood workers association, who spoke eloquently of the oystermen’s plight.

“In Atlanta, they’re going to keep having babies. They’re going to keep needing more and more water,” he said. “Let Atlanta stop watering their grass a little bit.”

“What we have here is a system being run by man that was created by God,” he said. “When man steps in he has a way of messing things up. Man made this disaster, man can fix this disaster. Man needs to do his job.”