A decades-long “water war” is now before the nation’s highest court –
pitting Georgia’s use of water to supply its multi-billion-dollar
agriculture industry and the booming Atlanta area, against the Sunshine
State’s need for fresh water to revive its oyster business.
The case, still sitting with the Supreme Court, is centered around the
Chattahoochee and Flint rivers. These freshwater sources start in
Georgia, then join together and form the Apalachicola River near the
Florida border, which flows into Apalachicola Bay.
There lies what once was a thriving oyster market. A decade ago farmers
could harvest nearly 20, 60-pound bags of oysters on any given day in
the bay of brackish water, according to Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire.
Today, he says farmers struggle to bring home one to three bags because
the salinity is too high.
Tonsmiere says that all parts of “the society that lives down here
really is coming apart, and it’s because their life’s work and family’s
whole culture has disappeared.”
The stakes are high for both states, which are knee-deep in millions of
dollars of legal fees as a result of Florida’s call to limit Georgia’s
Oyster drills prey upon oysters in the Apalachicola Bay.
Elevated salinity fosters greater density of these predators. (Dr.
Andy Kane, University of Florida Department of Environmental and
“Agriculture is the heart of our region (Southwest Georgia), and water
is the lifeblood of agriculture,” Casey Cox, a sixth generation farmer,
told Fox News. “Farmers have been very invested in following…the water
wars over the last several decades because it will immensely impact what
we do, and that uncertainty is something we have to take into account.”
Despite a recommendation to side with Georgia from Special Master Ralph
Lancaster Jr., an attorney hired to research the issue on behalf of the
Supreme Court, the Sunshine State left last week’s oral arguments with a
ray of hope.
“It’s common sense that that water, if left unattended, would flow down
stream,” Tonsmeire said, a sentiment that appeared to resonate with some
of the justices.
Justice Elena Kagan acknowledged that Florida had “common sense” on its
“Can we agree that a cap at the very least would prevent the situation
in Florida from getting worse?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked.
But Georgia attorney Craig Primis argued this notion was wrong, pointing
to Lancaster’s report from last February. His evaluation found that
while Florida showed decreased water flow harmed the state, it failed to
prove cutting Georgia’s water use would provide Florida any benefit.
“The [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers’ management regime from the top of
the Chattahoochee right through to the Gulf is complex, and it’s just
not a zero-sum game with respect to savings being automatically passed
on or passed on in full,” Doug Miell, an energy and natural resources
consultant to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said.
The Corps manages five dams along the Chattahoochee River under
congressional direction. It abides by an operations manual that Miell
says “looks at transportation, water supply, flood control and
endangered species.” As a result of the Corps’ high level of control,
Lancaster reported that even with a cap on Georgia’s water use, Florida
might not see a difference.
However, Chief Justice John Roberts did not appear to mirror Lancaster’s
concern to the same extent. “It seems to me it's asking an awful lot of
Florida to have to say: We know that the Corps is going to change things
the way it benefits us,” Roberts said.
It could take months before the Supreme Court takes action on the case.
Meanwhile, time is ticking for the fragile ecology of the Apalachicola
Tonsmeire says after years of fighting high salinity, the damage will
inevitably become irreversible without more fresh water soon.
“With the exacerbated drought conditions that we have now, it’s like
stretching the rubber band a lot further than where we would typically
get to,” Tonsmeire said. “You get to a point where the rubber band won’t
come back to where it was or even worse it would break and the system