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Water wars rise: Florida to sue Georgia over condition of Apalachicola Bay

A day after the federal government declared that Florida's oyster harvesting region was a disaster area, Gov. Rick Scott announced the state will file a lawsuit against the state of Georgia for the excessive consumption of water that has harmed the ecosystem and economy of Apalachicola Bay.

The lawsuit, to be in the U.S. Supreme Court in September, challenges Georgia's "unchecked and growing consumption of water, which is threatening the economic future of Apalachicola,'' Scott said in a statement after a hearing on the controverial issue in Franklin County on Tuesday. Conducting the hearing was U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio.

"You have an entire industry that is on the verge of being extinct because of governmental inaction,'' Rubio said after the tour.

Scott noted that he and the Legislature put $4.7 million into the region to retrain workers hurt by the ailing economy. "Georgia has taken our water,'' he said after the tour. "We've had meetings. No progress has happened in those meetings." 

He called it "a bold, historic legal action for our state."

The lawsuit shifts the dispute that has been simmering between the states for 20 years from the negotiating table to the courtroom.

"This is our only way forward after 20 years of failed negotiations with Georgia,'' Scott said. "We must fight for the people of this region. The economic future of Apalachicola Bay and Northwest Florida is at stake.” 

Alabama, which is also part of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basins, has also sought relief from Georgia's consumption practices and has worked with Florida to resolve the issue for more than 20 years. They states have sued the Army Corps of Engineers for its water management practices, without success. 

An attempt to negotiate an equitable distribution of the waters that flow through the states fell apart in 2003 with the collapse of the ACF Compact in 2003. Since then, Georgia has staked a claim to the river waters for itself, considered a hostile action by Florida and Alabama.

The lawsuit will seek injunctive relief against Georgia’s "unmitigated and unsustainable upstream consumption of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint River Basins," Scott said.

Apalachicola River water levels are reduced by upstream withdrawals from the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, especially apparent low-flow summer and fall seasons. The Chattahoochee River is the primary source of water for the Metro-Atlanta area, which withdraws an estimated 360 million gallons per day. , Georgia’s consumption is expected to nearly double to 705 million gallons per day by 2035 -- the approximate water volume of the entire Apalachicola Bay -- as Atlanta’s population and water consumption grows. 

The low water levels have led to the distruction of the region's famed oyster beds, as high salinity in the bay have led to increased disease and predator intrusion. Apalachicola Bay oysters account for 90 percent of Florida's oyster supply and 10 percent of the nation's oyster supply.

"Georgia is getting its piece first before we have a calculation,'' said Jon Steverson, director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District. "The good lord giveth and Georgia and the corps taketh away."