Unfortunately, this week’s two-U.S. senator “field hearing” on the Apalachicola is no more likely to make a difference in the decline of the river and bay than previous hundreds of meetings. Talk has been tried, long-term studies have been tried, an interstate compact has been tried, and litigation has been tried. All have failed.
The whole problem is that Georgia realizes that it is entirely upstream of Florida. Surprise! Interests in Georgia have no interest in striking a deal because not a single interstate river originates in Florida and creates downstream problems in Georgia. There is no commonality of interest, no sharing of the pain, no plausible path to cooperation. Until Georgia is motivated differently, nothing is likely to change.
What about the lawsuit that Governor Scott announced would be filed (later!)? It is not a strong beginning to announce you are suing another state but without any actual lawsuit. So far, this threat lacks a valuable endorsement from the state of Alabama. This kind of water case before the U.S. Supreme Court usually takes many years to resolve and may not end up as Florida hopes. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal is unimpressed:
While the timing seems to work for political purposes, it’s ironic this comes at a time when Florida and Georgia are experiencing historically high rainfall. The fastest and best resolution is an agreement, not a lawsuit going into an election year. On the flip side, the merits of Georgia’s arguments have consistently prevailed in federal court, and a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court would decide this issue in Georgia’s favor once and for all.
Even if the Supremes magically gave Florida every thing asked for, this would do nothing at all for all of the other rivers and aquifers that enter Florida from Georgia. What is needed for enduring success is more leverage against water abuses from Georgia-regardless of the lawsuit. If Florida were serious about saving the waters that originate north of the state line, there are some actions that could help. For example:
Undertake media and public outreach campaigns upstream of Florida. Most Georgians are unaware of how badly their government is treating the Apalachicola. Florida could buy television and print ads in Georgia and run a social media campaign to create that awareness.
Show good faith. Attention given to Apalachicola issues could have a good effect but some of those demanding environmental action lack all credibility. For example, Senator Rubio displayed love of the Apalachicola but has only a 12% environmental scorecard from the League of Conservation Voters. Representative Southerland testified at the hearing and beats even that low level with a score of 7%. Consider, also, the testimony given by Rick Scott’s director for the Northwest Florida Water Management District. He forgot to mention that Scott has done more damage to the state’s water management system than anyone in several decades.
Fund intensive water quality and biological monitoring. The State of Florida could fund much-expanded hydrological and biological investigations and prove just how badly Georgia practices are harming the Apalachicola tributaries. That could help motivate Georgia citizens to treat the rivers better.
Demonstrate water conservation leadership. Some elements of the Georgia Water Stewardship Act are more rigorous than Florida requirements for water conservation. How much will that damage Florida’s case as a lawsuit proceeds? If Scott were serious about the lawsuit, he would announce measures that dramatically exceed the Georgia water conservation measures.
Work with farm interests in south Georgia to reduce irrigation during droughts. Georgia already has an innovative law (the Flint River Drought Protection Act) that establishes the procedures “for holding an irrigation reduction auction to decrease irrigation acreage in any declared severe drought year and how the auction may be operated.” Although little used, this Georgia program is analagous to Arizona “groundwater credits” wherein agricultural irrigators profit by selling water availability credits to other users. Florida could consider payments to Georgia farmers to reduce excessive or inefficient agricultural use of water.
Support Georgia water sustainability organizations. If a local organization in Atlanta thinks that the city doesn’t treat sewage adequately or does not take all reasonable measures to conserve water, that organization deserves Florida support.
Actively participate in Georgia water use and water quality permit issuances and renewals. Permits that violated water quality standards or other permit conditions should be vigorously opposed by Florida state government. That would help change the incentives in Georgia for reaching agreements with Florida.
There is a lot that could be done to change incentives for Georgia to come to the water negotiation table. A lawsuit is only one of them and may be the most risky.