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Our Views: Oysters not wet yet?
As it rains on, Florida stirs up water wars with a legal threat likely driven by politics
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson

At one time, the biggest competition between Georgia and Florida came each fall in Jacksonville over cocktails and a football game. Now when our two states clash, it nearly always involves water and courtrooms.

Last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said his state intended to sue Georgia over water flows into Apalachicola Bay, the last stop of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system that includes Lake Lanier. Sunshine State officials claim Georgia is taking more than its “fair share” of freshwater from the river system that feeds the bay. Whatever they mean by “fair share” is anyone’s guess, but it likely means “more than we want.”

For more than two decades, the states have sparred over water rights to the river basin, with Alabama involved as well. It’s a story folks here know well: Georgia needs water for commercial and residential needs, including agriculture; Alabama needs it for its power plants along the river; and Florida is concerned about its oysters in Apalachicola Bay.

During recent years of drought, the battle over water made sense. As we learned over the years, many communities along the river system rely on steady flows for their livelihood.

But now, in the midst of the wettest summer seen in years, when many areas have been washed out by floods, the ground is saturated and the only things bigger than the weeds are the mosquitoes, Florida decides a lawsuit is the best way to get the water it wants.

Give us a break.

As we Georgians shake our heads over this ill-advised way to water the shellfish, let’s point out a few obvious facts.
First, Scott is up for re-election next year. The lawsuit could be a way to appeal to voters, particularly those in the Panhandle. He was joined in the announcement by Florida’s two U.S. senators, one of them — Republican Marco Rubio — pondering a run for president and looking to repair his image after the recent immigration fight in Washington.

Politics always plays a part in these little interstate dramas. A “sad political stunt” is what U.S. Rep. Doug Collins called it.

Secondly, rainfall totals in West Florida have been, like ours, well above normal this summer. Plenty of rain has fallen on the river system to keep water flowing without having to rely on additional releases from Buford Dam hundreds of miles north.

Just how much more water do oysters need flowing into the bay to provide a sufficient harvest? The federal government has declared the area a fishery disaster, but any number of factors could be to blame, including overfishing of the bay. Would taking more water out of Lake Lanier really have much of an effect? Folks on our end think not.

“The oyster industry has had myriad problems and very few, if any of them, are the result of Georgia’s usage of water,” said Val Perry of the Lake Lanier Association. Perry believes the small increase in water flow from Lanier that Florida demands would be but a trickle by the time it reaches the Gulf.

Many feel Florida’s concern for more water is based less on thirsty oysters and more on creating its own expansive development along the coast, the same factor blamed for metro Atlanta’s supposed greed.

We’ve gone down this legal road before. Florida and Alabama sought court relief over the water impasse and received a favorable ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson in 2009 that sought to limit Lanier’s use as a water source for Georgia.

But that first quarter score was undone two years later when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta struck down Magnuson’s decision and reauthorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consider Lanier as a source of drinking water and rewrite their water-use manuals to reflect that. Georgia won again in June 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear appeals from Florida and Alabama, cementing our state’s right to keep its share of water.

Now Scott is trying for a fourth quarter Hail Mary pass going into an election year, possibly knowing it will fall short but hoping to persuade oyster-dependent constituents in the Panhandle he has their best interests at heart when they cast ballots.

Scott claims his attempts to work out a deal with Georgia have failed, yet he seems to prefer legal remedies to negotiating in good faith. A compromise means a give and take, whereas a court victory provides the whole enchilada.

“More than a year ago, I offered a framework for a comprehensive agreement. Florida never responded,” Gov. Nathan Deal said. “It’s absurd to waste taxpayers’ money and prolong this process with a court battle when I’ve proposed a workable solution.”

Even if Florida officials didn’t like Deal’s offer, they could use it as a starting point and come to the table with their own ideas. That’s how negotiations work. Instead, the proposal is ignored and high-priced lawyers deploy to do battle.

We’re beginning to lose hope that this war of attrition will ever end. While economic interests certainly figure in the mix, at the heart of the dispute seems to be Florida’s desire to bleed Atlanta and North Georgia of its economic success for their own benefit.

Conservation methods need to be employed, sure, and growth should be managed to ensure all resources are used properly. Georgia should, in fact, share water from the system fairly with those downriver in our state, Alabama and Florida.

But the way to accomplish this is through an equitable, negotiated deal, not by marching everyone back to court time and again in hopes of defeating the other side.

When those lawyers go to work, it’s likely they will be carrying umbrellas. And with heavy rain forecast today in Tallahassee, Scott can look out his window and see plenty of that precious commodity his state only seems willing to acquire at the end of a legal rifle barrel.

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