oysters _ water rights

After spending $98 million fighting Georgia in court, over water rights, Florida lost; that defeat could endanger an important industry in the Panhandle. There, oysters are so important that the Apalachicola Oyster Festival is held annually. This dish took second place in last year’s festival: Apalachicola Sunrise Oysters, prepared by Jeff Ilardi and the Mystic Krewe of Salty Barkers. / Courtesy oystercookoff.com

In the lawsuit over water rights — State of Florida vs. State of Georgia — Florida contended that Georgia should reduce its water consumption and thus allow more water to flow into Apalachicola Bay. Georgia argued that it needs the water to supply greater Atlanta, in the north-central part of the state; as well as farmers in southeast Georgia.

SCOTUS follows special master’s recommendation on water

At the end of the 137-page report is the Supreme Court’s ruling (excerpted here): “we (the justices) conclude that Florida has not proven by clear and convincing evidence that a decree imposing a cap on Georgia’s consumptive water use would result in additional streamflow in Florida at a time that would provide a material benefit to Florida. Accordingly, we ADOPT the Special Master’s recommendation and DENY Florida’s request for relief.”

In the lawsuit, Florida claimed that the state’s ecology and economy — especially in and around Apalachicola Bay — had suffered, and would continue to suffer, serious harm due to its northern neighbor’s increasing consumption of water and the resulting reduced flow into Florida. Florida asked the Supreme Court to force an “equitable apportionment of the waters of the (Apalachicola) Basin,” the special master wrote.

This was a high-stakes fight for both states. The focus of the lawsuit was the Peach State’s use of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, parts of which lie in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. That basin feeds into the Apalachicola River that runs through Florida’s Panhandle.

Point/counterpoint on water rights

Florida asked for more “streamflow” from the Apalachicola River in order “to sustain the riverine and estuarine ecosystems in the River and the Bay (collectively, the ‘Apalachicola Region’) as well as the livelihood of those, like the oystermen of the Bay, who make their living from these ecosystems,” wrote Lancaster, a private attorney, in his report.

Stone crabs and other sea creatures that prey on oysters prefer high salinity levels. So when salinity levels increase, the number of predators that eat oysters also increases. / Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Oysters, a mainstay of the Apalachicola area’s economy, thrive in a low-salinity environment. But the reduced water flow from the Apalachicola River into Apalachicola Bay has increased the salinity level of the water, adversely affecting the number of oysters harvested — in part because oyster predators, such as stone crabs, prefer the higher salt content.

Georgia countered that it needs to be allowed “to consume sufficient water from the Basin to meet the municipal and industrial water demands of … Atlanta … and the agricultural demands of farmers in southeastern Georgia.”

In the lawsuit, the special master noted, Georgia argued that “Florida’s asserted harms are imaginary, self-inflicted, or inflicted by the operations of the United States Army Corps of Engineers.”

The Army Corps of Engineers was not named in the lawsuit that Florida filed. Lancaster seemed to criticize the state for that omission: “the Report recommends that the (Supreme) Court deny Florida’s request for relief because the Corps is not a party to this original jurisdiction proceeding …. (thus) no decree entered by this Court can mandate any change in the Corps’ operations in the (Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River) Basin.”

Lancaster also summed up the stakes on both sides: “Both States warn of dire consequences … Florida of an ecological and economic disaster in the Apalachicola Region; Georgia of a crippled city and arid farmland in Georgia.”

Can Apalachicola Bay recover?

From 2007 through 2011, the “dockside landings in dollar value” averaged $7,347,115, according to a May 2013 report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The “2012-2013 Florida Gulf Coast Oyster
Disaster Report” also noted that “From September 2012 through February 2013, revenues and pounds of oyster meats from commercial harvest have steadily declined monthly.”

In 2013, Frankin County “oyster landings” (the weight of oysters, in pounds, harvested from the sea and brought to land for commercial use) totaled just over 1 million pounds. Apalachicola is in Franklin County. One year before, in 2012, that harvest totaled 2.5 million pounds.

The FWC hopes that oyster-harvest restrictions it enacted in the fall of 2014 will help the bay, and its oyster industry, to recover. The FWC included this statement in its “2012-2013 Florida Gulf Coast Oyster Disaster Report”: “Oyster recovery is possible and has historical precedence.”

Time will tell.