Water wars rage on in Georgia

Published 9:11 am Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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Water usage rights have been a point of contention between Georgia and Florida for years. However, prior disputes have now led to a significant legal battle, with the Supreme Court hearing Florida’s grievances this past Monday. Things like the Apalachicola Bay oyster harvest have, according to Florida, been negatively impacted due to Georgia’s water usage.

Initially heard by the Court back in 2013, it was expected that Georgia would prevail; before it was decided that Florida would be able to try again. Florida contests that water usage by farmers in southwest Georgia over the years has upset the freshwater flow through the Apalachicola River and into the bay. The Apalachicola flows south from Lake Seminole, passing through the Jim Woodruff Damn, which is operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. The oysters that thrive in Apalachicola bay thrived there due to its brackish water, but with less freshwater reaching the bay, the oyster population has drastically declined. Again, Florida contends it is Georgia agriculture’s overuse of water from the Flint, Chattahoochee and other rivers and streams in the southwest that has led to the decrease in freshwater. However, there are those, both in Georgia and Florida, that disagree with this argument.

The Florida non-profit organization known as the BAYSAVERS argues that one cause was the connection of the Apalachicola and one of it’s other primary sources of fresh water, Florida’s Lake Wimico, with St. Joseph and St. Andrew’s Bay, through the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the Gulf County Industrial Canal. This has caused freshwater to flow out of the lake and it’s surrounding wetlands, and introduced saltwater to the previously freshwater ecosystem.

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Jeff Tilley, with the Florida oyster farming and processing company Oyster Boss, has, in an online blog post, described the downfall of Apalachicola Bay as a “Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts.”

“I don’t know how much parties upstream from us are absolved… but there’s an awful lot that gets left out of the discussion,” he told the Post Searchlight. “Over-harvesting by the oystermen, and there’s some things the regulators, and by the regulators I mean the Florida Wildlife Commission, got dreadfully wrong about the BP oil spill.” Another waterway project that Tilley contends has negatively affected the bay is the Bob Sikes Cut. The Cut is a small canal that cuts St. George Island, one of the bay’s natural boundaries, in half. “I used to own property on the Bob Sikes Cut, and the argument was always that Bob Sikes couldn’t have had an impact. I have seen trees floating through that cut on the tide, and it’s obvious they didn’t just fall over in the bay, they were coming from the river,” he said. In the same blog post on the Oyster Boss website, he even claims to have seen dead wild hogs floating through the cut, carried directly from the river, to the cut.

According Tilley and others, locals believe oil dispersants used in the aftermath of the BP oil spill in the bay also took a toll on the bay’s wildlife, despite the fact that the oil never reached the bay. Overfishing of oysters has also been cited as a contributing factor to the oyster’s decline. According to Tommy Dollar, of Dollar Farm Products here in Bainbridge, oystermen in the area have backed this claim up. “I go down to Apalachicola, and I talk to the oyster fishermen… I ask them how the oyster business is doing, and they say ‘We overfished it…’” Tilley concurs, saying in his blog that, “… for generations, local oyster harvesters overlooked the importance of pushing undersized oysters back off of their cull boards and instead, they put them in the same oyster sacks where they also placed their legal oysters, hauling them to the ever-so-ready-to-receive local processors and wholesalers who then took those undersized oysters to market.”

As of the writing of this article, the Supreme Court has not yet issued a ruling in the case. Should Florida be victorious in the case, southwestern Georgia farmers could have restrictions placed on the amount of water they are allowed to pump, which could greatly impact the local economy. The Post-Searchlight will monitor this case and provide updates in the future.