After 30 Years, Apalachicola Water War Still Rages

May 20, 2016

In the U.S. Senate, Florida and Alabama are pressuring Georgia to join a water-sharing compact for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. But it could be too late downstream for scores of families who earned their livelihoods from the dying Apalachicola River.

The sun hasn’t been up long, but a quarter of a mile off East Point, veteran oysterman Eugene King and his wife Dalene  are already close to their four-bag limit.

Dalene sits on the open deck of a 20-foot skiff, methodically sorting shells and hacking rhythmically at the biggest ones with a worn knife. Eugene leans on the long wooden handles of his oyster tongs and pauses to talk about the old days.

“Uh, me and her was catching, down there in the western end of the bay, 20, 25 bags a day. But we was gettin’ $10 for ‘em that time. See, that was 2009, I believe it was. But that, that’s some good times.”

November rains have brought a mini-recovery. But not enough to make up for the fishery’s total collapse in 2012, when flows from the Apalachicola River hit an 89-year low. The group American Rivers just declared the Apalachicola system the most endangered in the nation.

Apalachicola Seafood Workers President Shannon Hartsfield says scores of oyster fishermen have moved away, or abandoned a way of life that sustained them for generations.

“My son is 23-years-old, he would have been fifth generation, but I pushed him in a different industry. He’s gone into welding. He’s moved away. He’s living up around Savanah, Georgia, the South Carolina area. My daughter, she’s 25. She’s moved to Ocala. “

Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham is sponsoring legislation that would force the Army Corps of Engineers to factor the bay into their water allocations upstream.  But the bill is stalled and Graham is stepping down next year, a victim of redistricting.

Hartsfield is grateful, but he isn’t holding his breath Congress will act soon.

“I think it’s brought more awareness. And more eyes is always better when you’re dealing with issues like this.”

A few miles from East Point in sleepy Apalachicola, Dan Tonsmeire monitors the slow motion train wreck from the storefront office of the Apalachicola River Keepers.

He ushers his visitors to a topographical model of the 600-mile, three-state ACF system. It starts with the rise of the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta. The Chattahoochee joins Georgia’s Flint River much further south, defining the Georgia-Alabama border. The Apalachicola River joins at the Georgia line and flows 107 miles south to the bay.

We're seeing it right here before our eyes collapsing. We've just got to be smarter than that.

A single reservoir in Atlanta holds 65 percent of all constrained water. But farmers in the Flint basin in Central Georgia get a hefty share too, Tonsmeire says.

“The real monster use, two to three times what Atlanta uses, is the ag industry down here in the lower Flint. Okay? In a drought, three times the water is being taken out of here as what’s being taken out up here.”

Washington will have to act soon because more is at stake than the Apalachicola seafood industry, Tonsmeire says. Satellites show the fresh water flows far out into the Gulf of Mexico, where it sustains a fishery worth tens of billions of dollars.

“We’re playing with an ecosystem that runs from the foothills of the Smokey’s to 250 miles out into the gulf. We’re seeing it right here before our eyes collapsing. We’ve just got to be smarter than that.”

Across the street from the office, Smokey Parrish stands on the dock of Ward’s Shrimp House. His day job is manager, but he also serves as a Franklin County Commissioner.

Parrish brags that Apalachicola is acre-for-acre the nation’s most productive estuary. But without nutrient rich freshwater flowing from Georgia, he says the bay, and the local economy, are doomed.

“It’s a big issue for the people here. We do not have manufacturing jobs here. We have a height limit, you cannot build above 35-feet high. We don’t have 10-story condominiums. We don’t have Wal-Mart’s, we don’t have movie theaters, we don’t have shopping malls.”

Water wars with Alabama and Georgia are nothing new to Parrish. Several years ago, he went to Washington to testify before Congress. Parrish says he couldn’t believe his ears when an Atlanta water manager predicted the city’s population will double in 10 years.

“If you can’t provide fresh water and you don’t have the infrastructure in place for 6.5 million, where are you going to get it for 13 million people? That explains it all to you right there.”

Meanwhile, environmentalists have been largely left in the dark since Governor Rick Scott sued Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court, Tonsmeire says.

He’s not sure what will happen with the latest efforts in the U.S. Senate to form a water sharing compact. The bay is crawling back from the collapse, but another drought season lies ahead, Tonsmeire says.

“We’ve wasted millions of dollars in legal fees that could have gone to good drought management planning, improving conservation in the basin. Just…so much wasted time.”

Even if Georgia signs a compact, Tonsmeire says, there’s no guarantee it won’t fall apart like the last one did in the 1990s.