Florida vs. Georgia isn’t just an October football classic. It’s now a Supreme Court case – one which might have ramifications for the rest of the USA too. It’s a fight over water.
Every 45 seconds or so, oystermen plunge their long-handled tongs into the shallow blue-gray waters of Apalachicola Bay, rake the bottom and deposit meager-looking piles on the bow of their flat-bottomed boat. A gloved co-worker culls the keepers from the empty shells and immature oysters, which are tossed back.
“See these guys here?” asked Shannon Hartsfield, whose family has fished and oystered and crabbed and shrimped here for four generations. He pointed to a nearby boat.
“Three tongers and one culler? Usually you’d have one tonger and two or three cullers. That’s the flip-flop. Used to, that man right there’d keep two cullers busy all day long.”
Apalachicola Bay, an estuary recognized by the United Nations for its uniqueness, once produced 10 percent of the nation’s oysters and 90 percent of those from Florida. Why it doesn’t anymore – why its oyster production has fallen so dramatically – has been the subject of decades of litigation, which now has landed before the Supreme Court.
Florida v. Georgia, which is to be argued Monday, is a water fight that pits the thirsty megalopolis of Atlanta and the farmers of southeastern Georgia against conservationists and seafood producers in this stretch of the Florida Panhandle called the Forgotten Coast. Both states need the fresh water that starts in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains – as well as in a spring just south of the Atlanta airport – and meanders hundreds of miles before finding its way into the Gulf of Mexico via the Apalachicola River.
So far, Georgia has been the big winner, aided by decisions from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that allow it to keep the lion’s share of the water.
Often in such Supreme Court fights, each state wants water for growth. But in Apalachicola, leaders say getting a greater share is necessary to allow the place to stay as it is. The fresh water provides the perfect degree of bay salinity required to sustain the seafood industry, they say, and thus a way of life.
I crossed Apalachicola Bay a week or two ago, as I have many times the past two decades. I have two connections to the above story. One, I used to live in metro Atlanta; I used some of that water. Two, I’ve eaten my share of the Oysters, maybe the best in the world and in one of the best settings. I can kind of see each side of the issues here.
One time, maybe 15 years ago, I took a water tour up the Apalachicola River, from “downtown” Apalachicola, home of Caroline’s. It was a shockingly cold, windy December day. Luckily, formerly fat Perrin was well insulated.
The guide was great as he pointed out trees, other boats, and alligators. Then he mentioned the water war. His solution was simple: they should bomb Atlanta. Okay. It made a little sense, considering his perspective; we were on his river, recipient of whatever flow ATL dictated at the time. I was mildly alarmed as, at that time, I lived in the proposed target area. He jested, I was almost sure.
The point here, well, I don’t really have a point about the matter at bar. The greater point is that, as urban areas grow, they need water. My Western readers are acutely aware of this issue. It has to come from somewhere.
Atlanta, its political leaders (or what passes…) have proposed all manner of wacky solutions. I’ve heard of: piping water in from other states, in from the mountains, building new reservoirs, salt water refineries, and, or course, continuing to drain the Apalachicola, via the Chattahoochee (lot of vowels there).
This is all something to consider when decided where and how to live. Water is a must and, again, it must come from somewhere.
The wise Nine shall surely tell us all the business…
Now, on an even more remote, cold December morning, I had trekked across the Bay on a different, yet somewhat related mission. I and my good Brother-in-Law needed oysters. Appropriately fueled, we arrived in East Point for procurement.
We entered a dockside oyster house. Therein a heated discussion unfolded. One party held aloft a shotgun. Why such a tool was needed given the circumstances escaped us, even as we escaped via the front door. I suppose oysters, unhappy at their capture, may become rowdy. Maybe it was the water war. I’m not sure. But, that is a story for another day.