The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to keep a decades long legal fight over water use alive is boosting hopes in North Florida. The state and its northern neighbor Georgia have been locked in a three-decade long fight over how much water each should get from a shared system.
The system is the Apalachicola-Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers. On a map, they resemble a “Y”. The Flint starts in Alabama, the Chattahoochee originates in Georgia, and they meet near the Florida-Georgia border and become the Apalachicola which feeds the Apalachicola Bay. And at one point that bay supplied a big part of the nation.
"We used to send three trucks out a week full of Apalachicola oysters," TJ Ward recalls. " Now we can't even hardly fill a pallet of oysters out a week. That's just crazy. I never would have thought five years ago, 10 years ago even, that we'd be where we are now.”
Ward's family runs 13 Mile seafood in Apalachicola and they've been in business for decades, farming Apalachicola Bay shrimp and oysters, redfish, and grouper.
The bay thrives on seasonal flooding in the river, which brings vital nutrients downstream. But drought has crippled the ecosystem. High salinity and nutrient levels and overharvesting haven’t helped either—former Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmiere says all that is due to low water flow upstream.
“So the question about whether the bay will come back—there’s no question that we have crossed some sort of threshold that will take some time.”
The water flow issues are what have consumed Florida and Georgia and to an extent Alabama. The three sides have fought over this for more than 30 years. In 2013 Florida sued Georgia and took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Georgia says it needs more water for its growing population and agriculture while Florida says Georgia is taking too much—causing harm to Apalachicola Bay’s ecology and the economy that depends on it. Last year a special master appointed by the high court to hear arguments ruled the lawsuit should be dismissed. He said Florida hadn’t proved increase water flow could reverse more than a decade of declining bay health. Tonsmire argues that conclusion was wrong.
"The way I approach those kind of statements is, ‘prove that it won’t, versus making us prove that it will," he says.
The U.S. Supreme Court appeared to agree recently when it decided to give Florida a second shot at making its case. The court is sending the case back to the Special Master for further review.
"Florida lives to fight another day and the Apalachicola is down but not out," says National Wildlife Federation spokeswoman Tanya Galloni.
The ruling also comes a week after a wildfire dealt yet another blow to Apalachicola. A wildfire in nearby Eastpoint destroyed three dozen homes, and burned up boats used by local fishermen who make their living from the bay.