Apalachicola Bay is crucial to the local economy. Unfortunately, reduced water flow from Georgia has hurt the area’s once-thriving oyster industry. / Courtesy of the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce

Georgia and Florida are back in court over the water flowing from the Peach State to Apalachicola Bay — or, more specifically, the water that isn’t flowing to the bay — in Florida’s Panhandle.

The oyster is vital to the area’s oyster fishermen but also important to the state’s economy in general, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ website: “Ninety percent of Florida’s oysters are harvested in Apalachicola Bay in Franklin County, one of the most productive, pristine estuaries in the country. In the warm, nutrient-rich waters of the bay, oysters grow quickly and can reach market size in less than two years. (Farther north, in colder waters, this process might take up to six years.)”

The U.S. Supreme Court, on Jan. 8 of this year, agreed to a full hearing of the “water wars” lawsuit, titled State of Florida v. State of Georgia. In late June, the court ruled that Florida, after losing at several earlier appeals, deserved another chance.

Florida has, for years, contended that Georgia should reduce its water consumption and allow more water to flow into Apalachicola Bay. Georgia argues that it needs the water to supply greater Atlanta, in the north-central part of the state; as well as farmers in southeast Georgia.

Florida continues to argue that the Sunshine State’s ecology and economy — especially in and around Apalachicola Bay, long known, until recent years, for its thriving oyster industry — have suffered and will continue to suffer serious harm due to its northern neighbor’s increasing consumption of water and the resulting reduced flow into Florida.

New special master

Former Special Master Ralph Lancaster, the attorney from Maine who authored the 2017 report to the U.S. Supreme Court, has been replaced. The new special master is a federal appellate judge with whom the states filed their appeals.

In his report, Lancaster rejected many of Florida’s earlier arguments and ruled in favor of Georgia. (Florida filed the lawsuit in 2013.) But the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Lancaster’s decision and has referred the case to Paul Kelly, a judge who serves on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. He lives in New Mexico.

Ninety percent of Florida’s oysters come from Apalachicola Bay. / Courtesy of Florida Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services

This is a high-stakes fight for both states. The focus of the lawsuit is 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 and, eventually, into Apalachicola Bay.

In his 2017 report, Lancaster summed up those stakes: “Both States warn of dire consequences … Florida of an ecological and economic disaster in the Apalachicola Region; Georgia of a crippled city (Atlanta) and arid farmland in Georgia.”

Florida has 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,” Lancaster wrote in his report.

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 its water. That has adversely affected the number of oysters harvested — in part because oyster predators, such as stone crabs, prefer the higher salt content.

In their most-recent appeal, Florida attorneys based their arguments, in part, on Lancaster’s own words. He wrote in his report, “There is little question that Florida has suffered harm from decreased flows in the River. Florida experienced an unprecedented collapse of its oyster fisheries in 2012.”

Georgia, however, has countered that those statements are not supported by evidence; and that it needs to be allowed “to consume sufficient water from the (Apalachicola) Basin to meet the municipal and industrial water demands of … Atlanta … and the agricultural demands of farmers in southeastern Georgia.”