The U.S. Supreme Court said this week that it will be taking up the case that has been called the “water war” at some point this term. Florida is hoping that the court will not agree with the special magistrate who ruled in Georgia’s favor. Alabama is also hoping that some sort of restriction is placed on the amount of water the Atlanta metro area can withdraw from Lake Lanier. One thing is certain: the three states have thus far not been able to agree how much water each state should get from the Chattahoochee River.
Anyone who loves a fresh shucked Apalachicola oyster wants Florida to prevail in this case. The oysters in Apalachicola Bay need just the right amount of fresh water to grow and thrive. Some people say that over harvesting or pollution are the main causes of the collapse of the oyster fishery, not low water levels in the Chattahoochee River, which becomes the Apalachicola River in Florida. No one can argue that the Apalachicola oyster, which has been voted best in the world more than once, is a species in decline. There used to be about 400 oysterman on the Apalachicola Bay; now there are about 90. Oystermen who used to harvest about 20 60-pound bags in a day now get about 5 of them.
It is hard to think that Atlanta’s millions of residents and the millions of gallons of water that they remove from the Chattahoochee River don’t have any effect on the oysters that are harvested downstream. It makes you wonder how different the Apalachicola Bay would look if the Army Corps of Engineers had never built the Buford Dam and created Lake Lanier in 1956. In 1997, Georgia, Alabama and Florida agreed to form a commission to figure out how much water each state should be allocated. In 2003, the talks fell apart and no agreement was reached. In 2013, Florida filed a suit against Georgia to limit withdrawals from Lake Lanier.
I would think some sort of system like the one in place for Lake Mead in Nevada could work. If Lake Mead reaches a certain level, Arizona and Nevada are required to reduce their use of water from the Colorado River. Luckily, Lake Mead has never gotten low enough to require a shortage declaration, but a prolonged drought in the west, which has exacerbated the recent fires in California, has the lake very close to the shortage mark. A similar rule could be in effect on Lake Lanier. If it ever falls below a certain level, Alabama and Georgia would be required to remove less water from the Chattahoochee River.
It is unclear who will prevail in this case. The special magistrate said he could not order the Army Corps of Engineers to do anything differently since they were not listed as a party in Florida’s suit. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will see things differently. I look forward to the day when Apalachicola oysters are plentiful again and get shipped around the country to seafood lovers who miss the best oysters in the world.
Eric lives in Suwannee County and is a public school educator. He is an independent contractor. You can reach him at email@example.com.