U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland last week shelved a proposal that could have helped safeguard Apalachicola Bay’s current freshwater supply, opting instead for a resolution requesting Florida, Georgia and Alabama work together on divvying up available water coming from Lake Lanier.
The bay’s oyster population has been devastated, primarily from the lack of freshwater coming down the Apalachicola River, which is fed by the lake near Atlanta.
The Panama City Republican’s amendment would have required the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to get congressional approval before diverting more than 5 percent of the flow, but he pulled back when the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman told him the amendment went too far.
Southerland said the chairman offered a substitute amendment - “basically edited my amendment” - halting its progress. “It wasn’t all that I wanted … but it was a lot more than we had the day before yesterday,” he said.
The resolution - “sense of Congress” language - passed the committee unanimously and was tacked on to the Water Resources Reform Development Act, which cleared the panel.
An Apalachicola environmental group, however, said the resolution won’t do much to benefit the bay.
“What resulted out of that was not helpful,” said Dan Tonsmeire, executive director of Apalachicola Riverkeeper. “I mean, what they’ve done essentially is say to the Corps that, you know, they need to encourage the three states to get in a compact and work this thing out.”
Tonsmeire praised Southerland’s committee speech but said the legislative action would yield little. He also noted the legislation has a long way to go before becoming law.
Tonsmeire said even the initial amendment would not have helped much; it would only have kept the flow from decreasing more, rather than requiring the Corps to increase it.
Southerland, meanwhile, was confident his actions would have an effect.
“Even though I didn’t get everything I wanted, I do believe that the ‘sense of Congress’ language that the chairman allowed to be put in the bill did highlight the inaction of the Corps,” he said, “and so we’re trying to put more pressure and up the ante on the Corps.”
Southerland has another plan to spur federal action. He will request a Government Accountability Office report on Corps’ reduction of water flow to the bay. He said committee chairman Bill Shuster, R-Penn., agreed to help him get the report and made a commitment to hold a hearing in which the Corps would come before the full committee to answer questions and respond to the report.
“I know what that report is going to say; it’s going to say that the Corps of Engineers has been woeful in addressing the needs of the Apalachicola River Basin,”Southerland said.
Tonsmeire said this plan was“really encouraging” and the focus must be on pressuring the Corps to care about the bay’s freshwater needs. He would most like to see a provision in the WRRDA bill requiring the Corps to increase flow to the bay, but Southerland has not committed to including such language.
Meanwhile, the two share common ground in their distaste for the Corps. Southerland slammed it during his impassioned committee speech, saying, “The Corps is the problem.”
In the past five decades, water flow down the Apalachicola River has decreased by more than 50 percent, Southerland told the committee. “This is a proud region, a place where heritage matters, and it’s a place on the verge of extinction,” he said in his speech.
Tonsmeire said Florida and Georgia are unlikely to work together on dividing the water since Gov. Rick Scott recently announced a lawsuit against the northern neighbor over the dispute.
Even without the suit, Georgia would have no reason to bargain because the Corps essentially is giving it everything it wants, Tonsmeire said. “When Georgia has the upper hand like that, I don’t see any incentive for them to come to the table,” he said, adding, the Corps doesn’t have a “perspective that’s going to help Florida at all.”
As for Southerland, he has dug in for the long fight. He said he was “one new soldier in this battle that’s been going on for decades.” And he said the Florida delegation is unified on this issue — all 27 lawmakers, 19 Republicans and eight Democrats, signed on to a letter he sent recently laying out the case.
“We are still very solidly sticking together,” he said. “Now Georgia, obviously, they’re fighting for their interests.”