This week, FAC staff attorney Stephen James attended the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation field hearing in Apalachicola. The hearing was focused on the impact of historically low freshwater flows that have parched the Apalachicola River and devastated the famous oyster-producing bay. U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, both members of the Senate Committee, as well as U.S. Representative Steve Southerland and other state and local elected officials attended the hearing, which will be transcribed and entered into the committee record as Congress contemplates both short and long term solutions to a decades-long water war between Florida, Alabama and Georgia.
At the beginning of the hearing, Senator Nelson announced that U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker on Monday declared a commercial fishery failure for the oyster fishery in Apalachicola Bay. The declaration, requested by Governor Scott back in 2012, will now require funding authorized by Congress. Hearing testimony was then presented by federal, state, and local officials including: Emily Menashes (NOAA Fisheries Office); Colonel Jon J. Chytka (ACOE Mobile); Jon Steverson (NWFWMD); Don Tonsmeire (Apalachicola River Keeper); Shannon Hartsfield (Franklin Seafood Workers); and Dr. Karl Havens (UF/IFAS).
Of the solutions discussed, the most viable appeared to be an administrative approach with the ACOE updating its Master Operations Water Control Manual to address the water use and discharge disparities. The Corps of Engineers controls the 19,300-square-mile Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin and the five dams within the basin. According to testimony, Georgia withdraws approximately 90% of the historically flowing water, with the public supply for the City of Atlanta alone using nearly three times the amount of all 16 counties in the Florida panhandle combined. It was also reported that Georgia had recently petitioned for another 297 MGD from Lake Lanier and another 408 MGB from the river system.
At the end of the hearing, Senator Nelson indicated that he would keep the record open for 10 days, should anyone wish to provide additional comments for the record.