BRADENTON, Fla. — On the heels of a federal fisheries disaster declaration for north Florida's water-starved commercial oyster region, a new legal fight is igniting between the Sunshine State and Georgia over fresh water rights.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott threatened to file a lawsuit next month in the U.S. Supreme Court, he said Tuesday, "to stop Georgia's unchecked and growing consumption of water, which is threatening the economic future of Apalachicola."
Calling Scott's move "political," Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said he was disappointed because he suggested the framework for a comprehensive agreement over water use more than a year ago.
The legal threat came a day after the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration approved Scott's request for a commercial fisheries failure declaration for oyster fishing in Apalachicola Bay, which has long been cited as a declining resource in the decades-long "tri-state water wars" between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.
In the declaration, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker cited a drought throughout the Southeast that led to below-average river flows, reduced downstream river flow as a result of man-made dams, and increased salinities in bays, causing stress to the oyster populations and allowing a persistent occurrence of oyster predators.
"Within the last year, [oyster] landings have declined nearly 60%, with a 44% reduction in revenues," Pritzker stated in an Aug. 12 letter to Scott. "This decline in revenues is an unusual occurrence in this fishery and is not part of a cyclical downturn in revenues."
A federal fishery disaster makes it possible for Congress to appropriate funds for economic assistance to fishing businesses and communities affected by the disaster, and to support other activities addressing the disaster.
Scott, a Republican who is collecting donations for his re-election campaign next year, announced the suit against Georgia while touring Apalachicola with Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.
Deal said that Florida never responded to the comprehensive agreement over water use that he proposed more than a year ago.
"It's absurd to waste taxpayers' money and prolong this process with a court battle when I've proposed a workable solution," he said in a statement, which did not include details about his proposal.
Scott claimed Georgia has not negotiated in good faith to share the waters that flow between the states, and said Florida will file suit next month.
"This is a bold, historic legal action for our state but this is our only way forward after 20 years of failed negotiations with Georgia," Scott said.
Georgia has made significant progress on water conservation in addition to proposing an agreement that suits both states, Deal said. The state has contributed bond financing toward a number of new reservoirs, which are built adjacent to a main water source such as a river. The man-made lakes store water for human consumption and fishing.
"While the timing seems to work for political purposes, its ironic this comes at a time when Florida and Georgia are experiencing historically high rainfall," Deal said. "The fastest and best resolution is an agreement, not a lawsuit going into an election year," he said. "On the flip side, the merits of Georgia's arguments have consistently prevailed in federal court, and a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court would decide this issue in Georgia's favor once and for all."
In June 2011, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals set aside a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson, who had placed a strict timeline for Georgia's cities to dramatically cut back on withdrawals from Lake Lanier, a federal reservoir on the Chattahoochee River, whose waters also flow to Alabama and Florida. Lake Lanier serves as a major potable water source for the fast-growing Atlanta region.
The doubt of whether that source would still be available caused rating agencies to consider placing some credits on watch.
Ultimately, the appellate court ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reevaluate water withdrawals from the lake. Last year, the Corps said it would conduct further analysis of issues between the states. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals of appellate court ruling filed by Florida and Alabama.