Congress members unveil plan to restore Apalachicola Bay

The area and oyster industry has taken big hit due to lack of freshwater, drought

By MARGIE MENZEL
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

TALLAHASSEE – With the backing of 20 other members of Congress, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Fla., on Tuesday unveiled a proposal aimed at restoring the health of Northwest Florida’s Apalachicola Bay – and the state’s oyster industry.

Oyster fishermen are shown in Apalachicola Bay in Apalachicola on June 23, 2010. (WALTER MICHOT/MIAMI HERALD/TNS)
Oyster fishermen are shown in Apalachicola Bay in Apalachicola on June 23, 2010.
(WALTER MICHOT/MIAMI HERALD/TNS)

The proposal is the latest development in Florida’s 25-year dispute with Georgia and Alabama over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, which the three states share. It also comes as Florida is suing Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that too much water is being siphoned off upstream, damaging the economically vital oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay.

Graham has filed a bill that would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consider freshwater flows to the Apalachicola River basin as part of the corps’ water management plans. The Corps of Engineers controls the flows in the tri-state river system and has relied on a 2011 ruling from a federal appeals court that said Georgia has a legal right to water from Lake Lanier, at the top of the system near metro Atlanta.

“This is what the corps says it needs,” Graham said of her bill. “What we need to provide is for the corps to have the legal authority to take into consideration the downstream ecosystem and release fresh water as necessary.”

Economic driver
Twenty other members of Florida’s 29-member congressional delegation have signed on as co-sponsors of Graham’s proposal, the Apalachicola Bay Restoration Act.

“Apalachicola Bay is a critical part of Florida’s environment and economy,” U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, the bill’s lead Republican co-sponsor, said in a statement. “With the right management and conservation efforts, we can save it from total collapse. This bipartisan bill represents an important part of that solution.”

Apalachicola Bay has historically been an economic driver for Northwest Florida, providing 90 percent of the state’s oysters and 10 percent of the nation’s oyster supply. Until recently, its commercial and recreational fishing industries generated $200 million a year and supported the vast majority of the local population.

Small oysters
But the bay collapsed in 2012, following a series of calamities. The lack of freshwater combined with a historic drought and a tropical storm to produce the lowest flows in 89 years – since the flows have been recorded. In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the bay a federal fishery disaster.

Now, the oysters are mostly too small to harvest and not nearly plentiful enough to support the seafood workers and their families, many of whom have left the state to find work. Thanks to the fishery-disaster declaration, a number of the oystermen are being paid with federal dollars to re-shell the oyster beds.

“They’re doing better than they were last year,” said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association. “But once we don’t have the shelling money, they’re going to have to go back to oystering.”

‘We have clout’
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tried to address the Apalachicola Bay issue in 2013, when they backed a provision to a water-resources bill that would have required Georgia to use less water from federal reservoirs for metro Atlanta’s drinking-water supply and to release more to the other two states. But the proposal was easily defeated in the Senate.

Graham said she had not yet approached members of Congress from Georgia and Alabama about supporting her bill, as she has focused on getting the Florida delegation on board. But that will be her next move.

“As the third largest state, we have clout,” said Graham, whose district includes Franklin County. “So the next step will be to talk to the members of the other delegations and hopefully have them speaking with their state leadership about this opportunity to end two-plus decades of litigation.”

Huge undertaking
Also on hand for Graham’s announcement in Franklin County were state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, and state Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, who represent the area in the Legislature.

“She had to start in her own backyard first,” Beshears said. “And getting everybody in Florida, just about, on board is huge. If she could get anybody across the state line from Georgia or Alabama to sign on, the odds of it passing then would be exponentially increased.”

Along with Graham and Buchanan, the bill is cosponsored by U.S. Reps. Jeff Miller, Ted Yoho, Corrine Brown, Ron DeSantis, Alan Grayson, Richard Nugent, David Jolly, Kathy Castor, Dennis Ross, Thomas Rooney, Patrick Murphy, Alcee Hastings, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson, Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

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