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Florida Politicians Rally Behind Oyster Industry

More than 200 community members filled the steps of the Franklin County Courthouse, waving signs, chanting slogans and signing petitions. There was also no shortage of politicians in Franklin County Tuesday. Those running for office like Democratic congressional candidate Gwen Graham and those holding office like her opponent Republican Congressman Steve Southerland found themselves on the same side of an issue. State Senator Bill Montford, whose district includes Apalachicola, told a thunderous crowd oysters aren’t a partisan issue.

“I’m a Democrat, he’s a Republican and we’re going to make sure this thing works, okay!” Montford bellowed.

In a rare move, Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, also on opposite ends of the political divide, held a senate hearing in Apalachicola to officially document the recently declared fishery disaster in the small, North Florida town. The bay’s oyster industry has been spiraling towards collapse in recent years and Senator Nelson thinks the reason why is clear.

“Over 2,000 jobs are related to harvesting or the processing of oysters on Florida’s Gulf Coast and while federal and state agencies are working together to help those fisherman that have been affected, the primary cause of the disaster- a lack of fresh water,” Nelson stated.

That lack of water has led to oysterman scraping shallow waters for a couple bags of bivalves where they used to fill their boats. Since the FED has declared the area a fishery disaster, it makes them eligible for disaster relief money. But, appropriating the funds from Washington is far from certain. And Senator Marco Rubio said even if the money is appropriated, it’s not a long term solution.

“They want to stay in this business. I mean this is the business they want to do, this is what their families have done, this is what the community is grounded on. At the end of the day, unless we fix this water problem, this funding isn’t going to solve that,” Rubio observed.

“The water problem” is a decade’s long dispute among the states of Alabama, Florida and Georgia over water consumption, commonly referred to as the tri-state water wars. Florida contends the state of Georgia is using water irresponsibly by hoarding the shared streams to metropolitan areas like Atlanta’s. Florida Senator Nelson the dispute has a simple solution- the Army Corps of Engineers, that’s in charge of parceling out water usage, could update its management plan. But, the Corp’s Mobile District Engineer Colonel Jon Chytka has his hands tied.

“But we cannot dictate, we do not have the authorities to impose conservation on Florida, Alabama, or Georgia… it’s not in our authorities,” Chytka admitted.

Since the Corps can’t force states to conserve more water, Senator Bill Nelson says Florida is left with two options – pass new legislation in Washington or get the governors of all three states to sign onto a water agreement.

With the taste of oysters fresh on his tongue Governor Rick Scott announced in the absence of a change to the Army Corps’ water manual, federal legislation or a tri-state agreement – he would be suing Georgia.

“The Corps of Engineers is not worried about us. That’s why Florida is going to file suit against Georgia, take this all the way to the Supreme Court, [and] make sure we do the right thing for the families that live right here,” Scott avowed.

As expected, Georgia’s Governor Nathan Deal wasn’t impressed by what he calls Scott’s political grandstanding. Deal declined to comment on tape but did issue a statement saying Scott has had a compromise on his desk for two years. In his statement Deal says “While the timing seems to work for political purposes, it’s ironic this comes at a time when Florida and Georgia are experiencing historically high rainfall.”

Scott is expected to file the suit accusing Florida’s northern neighbor of water theft in September.