EASTPOINT — After a morning spent working with seafood harvesters on Apalachicola Bay, U. S. Rep. Gwen Graham said Tuesday she is introducing legislation to require federal reservoir managers to consider the bay’s freshwater needs.
Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been battling in federal court for 25 years over water from the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, which flow into the Apalachicola River and Bay. The U. S. Department of Commerce in 2013 declared a fishery disaster in Apalachicola Bay because of lack of fresh water.
Representatives of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates federal reservoirs on the Chattahoochee River, told a Senate field hearing in 2013 that it is only allowed to manage water for purposes authorized by Congress and that the ecological health of Apalachicola Bay is not one of them.
Standing Tuesday outside a seafood restaurant in Eastpoint, Graham announced her legislation that would require the Corps of Engineers to operate reservoirs consistent with the protection of the ecological integrity of the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola rivers along with fisheries in the bay and Gulf of Mexico.
“We’ve been fighting this for 25 years — over two decades,” said Graham, D-Tallahassee. “It is time to bring the people together, to bring the stakeholders together.”
Her legislation, called Apalachicola Bay Restoration Act, was co-sponsored by 20 of the other 26 members of Florida’s Congressional delegation.
The legislation could face a steep challenge in Congress if Alabama and Georgia’s representatives oppose it. Georgia’s congressional delegation blocked similar language that was proposed in 2013 for the federal Water Resources Development Act update.
Graham said she thinks the bill will pass because Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has said he wants to find a solution to litigation filed in the Supreme Court by Florida in 2013 seeking to curb Georgia’s water use.
“Litigation is extremely expensive,” Graham told Floridaenvironments.com.
A spokesman for the Georgia governor said the state has no comment on issues as per direction of a court official overseeing the lawsuit in the Supreme Court. Special Master Ralph I. Lancaster has directed the states to work on settling the case while issuing a confidentiality order.
Graham said she doesn’t think her legislation is in conflict with Florida’s lawsuit and the legislation could show the states are trying to work out their differences.
“This will be a very positive additional piece for the Florida contingent in negotiating a fair agreement where all parties are able to walk away and feel there was a compromise that is positive for all,” she said.
Floridaenvironments.com requested comments from the office of Gov. Rick Scott and from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection but none was provided by the publication deadline.
Meanwhile, the Corps of Engineers is working to update its water control manual for its reservoirs and dams and is expected to issue a draft proposal for public comment in late August or early September, said Pat Robbins, a Corps spokesman in Mobile, Ala.
Graham said the Corps takes its direction from Congress and there was nothing in the 1945 legislation that authorized federal dams on the Chattahoochee River requiring the agency to consider the freshwater needs of Apalachicola Bay.
“It was probably not even something contemplated in 1945,” Graham said.
Graham, who was elected last November, made the announcement after completing a workday similar to those workdays done by her father, former U. S. Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat from Miami Lakes.
“I’ve learned that oystering is really hard,” Rep Gwen Graham said. “More importantly I got a chance to be friends with so many oystermen and women who depend on this bay for their heritage and their livelihood.”