TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — Florida Governor Rick Scott and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal met to discuss a longstanding water dispute that has been taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It was the first face-to-face meeting between Scott and Deal in the battle about the amount of freshwater flowing from the top of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, in north Georgia, downstream to the Florida Panhandle’s Apalachicola Bay.
The meeting follows a November decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to consider a lawsuit filed by Florida against Georgia. Ralph Lancaster, a special master appointed by the high court, has also encouraged the states to pursue other solutions in the dispute, which involves Florida seeking increased flows of freshwater.
Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz on Tuesday said the Florida governor “was following up on Governor Deal’s meeting request. Governor Scott will continue to work to protect the families whose livelihoods depend on the Apalachicola Bay.”
A large part of Franklin County’s economy depends on the bay’s seafood industry, especially its oysters. The 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. But the bay collapsed in 2012, and the lack of freshwater combined with a historic drought and a tropical storm to produce the lowest flows in 89 years. The bay was declared a federal fishery disaster in 2013.
A Deal spokesman said the Georgia governor would not comment on the meeting with Scott. Deal began trying to kick-start negotiations with Scott and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley in March. Deal met with Bentley on March 16. Alabama, which shares the river system with its neighbors and has been involved in prior litigation, chose not to join Florida’s case before the Supreme Court.
“The meetings have been shrouded in secrecy ever since a court-appointed special master handling a round of lawsuits between Georgia and Florida ordered the dueling states to keep quiet about the ongoing negotiations,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Tuesday.
The Journal-Constitution also reported in April that Deal and Bentley discussed “Deal’s plan to build a system of state reservoirs in north Georgia to beef up the state’s water storage supply. The state has already committed $300 million to the reservoirs, which have stoked fears in Alabama and Florida that Georgia is trying to hoard more of the resource.”
Florida has long contended that Georgia takes too much water from the Chattahoochee River to meet Atlanta’s growing demand. In the middle of the fight is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the flows and has relied on a 2011 ruling from a federal appeals court that said Georgia has a legal right to water from Lake Lanier in the northern part of the river system.
Last month U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, whose district includes Franklin County, filed a bill that would require the Corps of Engineers to consider freshwater flows to the Apalachicola River basin as part of the corps’ water management plans. The measure is supported by 20 other members of the Florida delegation.
(The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.)