Last summer, politicians and citizens crowded a U.S. Senate panel hearing in Apalachicola to demand action on dwindling water flows from Georgia to the Apalachicola river basin. But, some river enthusiasts say Florida’s focus on the lack of water from its northern neighbor is narrow and shortsighted.
After a debilitating drought in 2012 that almost collapsed North Florida’s oyster industry, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, U.S. Representative Steve Southerland and Florida Governor Rick Scott seemed certain who was to blame – Georgia.
In what was just the latest battle in the so-called “water wars” between Florida, Alabama and Georgia, Florida politicians on both sides of the political divide were quick to blame the drought and ensuing chaos in Apalachicola Bay’s oyster industry on excess water usage by the metro-Atlanta area. Georgia’s Lake Lanier and Flint River feed the Apalachicola, and thus the oysters that call the river basin home. Because of the lack of freshwater, the river’s salt levels increased and Florida’s fishable oyster population declined dramatically. But, not everyone is quick to point fingers at the Sunshine State’s northern neighbor.
In late November, Earl Morrogh, David Moynahan and Kris Smith embarked on a five day, 100-mile journey along the entire length of the Apalachicola River. The three modern-day explorers built a barge using six large barrels, some wooden planks and a small outboard motor powered by a large solar panel. Moynahan, an award winning nature photographer, mounted a camera atop the vessel and the team set out to photograph every piece of the ancient waterway in the hopes they’d inspire its conservation. Moynahan hopes the project gives people a sense of urgency.
“It’s all gradually degrading and with the shifting baseline it’s kind of hard to see it all happen. You know you don’t see it as a big jump,” Moynahan said after setting up camp alongside the river.
Although Moynahan doesn’t presume to know exactly why the river is degrading, he thinks the need for a solution is undeniable.
“I just am trying to show through my photography what we have and trying to inspire people to feel the same way I do about the need to protect what we have,” Moynahan explained.
The cause of Apalachicola’s environmental crisis is complicated and stems from a number of factors including industrial farming, climate change, man-made damns and estuaries and Atlanta’s water consumption. Earl Morrogh, the river expedition’s director insisted the approach Rick Scott took – suing Georgia in federal court in September -- is simplistic and unfair.
“I think a reason for a lot of the conflict is ultimately that what’s happening is seen as inequitable and sometimes unfairly so, people, or cities, or farmers are being kind of unfairly accused of sucking up all the water and actually I think it’s a more complex problem than that,” Morrogh said.
Morrogh is no stranger to the river. He’s kayaked the waterway numerous times, including a solo trip in 2009 to celebrate his 60th birthday. After working for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper he met Steve Leitman, a conservationist who’s worked with the river for more than 40 years. Leitman suggested the term “water war” is wholly inaccurate.
“If you framed it as it’s the difference between these interests and how do we deal with their needs rather than what the three states want, then you start realizing that it’s not everyone in Georgia on one team, everyone in Alabama on one team, and everyone in Florida on one team but, it’s different interests in different states that are sometimes on the same side,” Leitman contended.
Leitman said the real divisions are between farmers, city-dwelling consumers, fishermen and conservationists. And he says there’s enough blame to go around. Leitman believes the broader problem comes from the presumption that water is an infinite resource and that climate is unchanging.
“The low flows in the Flint made it where that there was a multi-year drought and it’s like a said before – we expect to have favorable climate forever and it’s not the most real expectation.”
Leitman said in addition to climate and water consumption, politicians are basing drought data on flawed research. He says much of the urban Southeast was built during a period of historically high rainfall and thus the baseline many scientists use to delineate drought periods is artificially high. There’s no word on the status of Florida’s lawsuit against Georgia, whose Governor Nathan Deal has scoffed at the idea that his state is to blame for Apalachicola’s water woes.