Man versus mussels. That's the way the fight over sharing Lake Lanier's water has been characterized. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it has to release a certain amount of water from Buford Dam in order to support endangered species at the southern end of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin.
That's got a lot of people asking why the needs of endangered mussels are apparently more important than the needs of millions of North Georgians, who may face critical water shortages as the extreme drought drags on.
What exactly are these critters that are causing such a ruckus? And how much water do they really need?
Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service regional office in Atlanta, said scientists are still trying to figure out what it takes for these species to survive. But first they've got to locate the animals and count them.
"We've had divers in the (Apalachicola) river all week, looking at where the mussels are," he said. "Scientists with both the corps and Fish & Wildlife are trying to predict the impact of reduced water flow."
The Chattahoochee River system, which Lake Lanier is part of, changes its name to the Apalachicola River after crossing the Florida line below Woodruff Dam.
Halfway between the dam and the Apalachicola Bay, there are two federally protected species of mussels: the purple bankclimber, listed as threatened, and the fat threeridge, listed as endangered.
Also protected is a fish, the Gulf sturgeon, listed as threatened. The sturgeon lives in the Gulf of Mexico during most of the year but must swim upriver to spawn in freshwater.
A threatened species does not face imminent extinction but has the same level of federal protection as an endangered species. Why are these particular three animals in peril?
"(The mussels) cannot live for an extended period of time without water," MacKenzie said. "They live in a specific part of the river, not too deep, not too shallow. They need the right temperature, the right food sources, even the right fishes swimming by, because their ability to reproduce depends on being able to hitch a ride on certain species of fish."
As for the sturgeon, MacKenzie said it needs the right level of water for spawning.
For many years, it's been generally accepted that wildlife in the Apalachicola River needs at least 5,000 cfs (cubic feet of water per second) released from Woodruff Dam below Lake Seminole.
"If it drops below that, there have been mussel fatalities," MacKenzie said.
However, there is no definitive scientific study that proves 5,000 cfs is the minimum amount these species must have. The Fish & Wildlife Service issued an opinion last year recommending 5,000 because historically that number has seemed to be adequate.
The corps then used that number in its interim operating plan for the ACF basin. The corps has the authority to change that amount, but to do so it would have to consult again with the wildlife agency, and there would have to be a process of public notice and public meetings on the proposal.
Mackenzie said it's difficult to pinpoint how low of a flow the mussels could tolerate, since they've never been in that situation before.
"We have limited science to predict the future of what happens when you go below (5,000 cfs)," he said.
Some people argue that the mussels have been around for millions of years and have weathered droughts before; surely these animals can do it again.
But MacKenzie there were no dams back then, no humans manipulating the flow of the water.
"The natural systems that allowed (the mussels) to survive no longer exist," he said. "We've in essence become their caretakers."
There are many species of mussels in the river, and some people question whether it matters if a couple of them disappear.
Aside from the fact that the Endangered Species Act requires these mussels to be protected, MacKenzie said the government cannot play God by deliberately allowing a species to be exterminated.
"People say, ‘What good are they?' I think that's a bit simplistic," he said. "They filter water. They also provide us with an indicator of the river's health. They are one piece of a system, and we don't know what happens when you remove that piece."
If conditions in the Apalachicola River are so bad that these mussels die off, plenty of other species, even those that are not endangered, will struggle to survive.
"Your governor (Sonny Perdue) has mistakenly portrayed this as 5 million people in Atlanta versus three endangered species," said David McLain, senior policy director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper and advisor to the Franklin County Seafood Workers' Association in Florida. "The real issue is that there's an irreplaceable estuary in the Apalachicola Bay."
An estuary is an area where river meets ocean. It has an alternating flow of freshwater and saltwater, and it's a fertile breeding ground for many types of wildlife.
"No other estuary on the East Coast offers as much as this one does," said McLain. "This bay produces 80 percent of the oysters that are commercially harvested and exported from Florida."
Lee Edmiston, research coordinator at Florida's Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, said the river is already suffering from the reduced flow of 5,000 cfs.
"At least 50 percent of the bay's economy is based on fishing and seafood harvesting," he said. "The oystermen are very worried. About half of what they're pulling up are dead oysters. And the marshes are turning brown because of the high salinity (saltiness) caused by the low flow."
Though the oysters live in the bay and the endangered mussels are about 40 miles upriver, these species are all mollusks and share some of the same problems.
"People wonder why, if the water goes down, these animals don't just move to where the water is," Edmiston said. "Well, they can't. They attach by a stalk to the river bottom and are pretty much stuck where they are."
McLain said the Apalachicola community was upset when Carol Couch, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, wrote a letter to the corps Oct. 12 asking for the flow at Woodruff Dam to be reduced as low as 2,000 cfs.
"The river has never gone that low. There is no historical basis for her to set it at that number," McLain said. "What we need is a scientific assessment that looks at the ACF basin as a whole. We've been pushing for that for years."
Kevin Chambers, spokesman for the Georgia EPD, said Couch believes 2,000 cfs would be sufficient for all downstream needs, not just endangered species. But when asked how Couch arrived at that number, he said he did not know.
Two power plants -- the Joseph Farley Nuclear Plant near Dothan, Ala., and the Herbert Scholz Generating Plant, a coal-fired facility near Woodruff Dam -- depend on a certain flow of water in the ACF system.
"For the nuclear plant, 2,000 cfs would be enough," said Major Daren Payne, deputy commander of the corps' district office in Mobile. "But the coal-fired plant needs 5,000, and we haven't found a way to reduce that."
Payne said the Scholz plant could be taken offline.
"We'd hate to do that," he said. "But the truth is, the nuclear plant generates 6,000 to 7,000 megawatts, and the Scholz plant generates only 85 megawatts."
MacKenzie said endangered species are being used as a political pawn, and not much attention is being given to these other users of the river's water.
"People are blaming the mussels," he said. "They're not talking about the nuclear plant, the coal-fired plant, the city of Columbus. Those needs would still be there even if the mussels didn't exist."
But since the mussels do exist, the government is obligated to protect them. Officials are still trying to determine if they can let Georgia keep more water in Lake Lanier without killing the wildlife downstream.
"We don't know yet," Payne said. "In 60 years of record keeping, the lowest historical flow was 5,000 cfs, and the mussels survived that. The question is, can they survive 4,500, or 4,000? We're still doing the biological assessment. We haven't even started talking numbers yet."
Payne said the dive teams will probably wrap up their investigative work by Wednesday, and the corps hopes to issue an opinion on the matter by mid-November.
"We're working side-by-side with Fish & Wildlife to get this done as quickly as we can," he said. "Normally, this is a process that would take months."