Apalachicola Bay water sources dry up, but legal bills from court battle still flow

Florida and Georgia have been fighting over access to fresh water for decades.  And now Florida fishermen are paying for it. 

The state just shut down much of the state’s oyster industry for the next five years. While commercial harvesters collect oysters in different parts of the state, historically most -- and at one point 90-percent -- came from the Apalachicola Bay in North Florida. 

The state said it had to ban harvesting oysters there because of how the water war with Georgia has damaged the bay. 

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The growing population of the Atlanta area is sucking much of the water out of our river systems before it reaches Florida. Atlanta water managers says they need it more than us. 

"That water is critical to our way of life. We don't have an alternate source....making sure that we have access to it is critical to the economy,” said Katherine Zitsch, Atlanta Regional Commission natural resources manager. 

As the rivers flow south from Atlanta, south Georgia cotton and peanut farmers suck up much more.  As the flow of fresh river water from Georgia is drying up, salt water from the Gulf is flooding into the Apalachicola Bay. 

That's changing the salinity, altering the food web, and wiping out the oysters.

It leaves Florida with a dying bay in north Florida and a losing legal battle that has burned state taxpayers for years. 

Former Governor Rick Scott ramped up the war in 2013 by suing Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court. Florida picked outside lawyers who charge up to $825 an hour. 

Franklin County fishermen said it wouldn't work.

“We said that's not going to solve anything for us," noted Shannon Hartsfield, who speaks for Franklin County seafood workers, pointing out that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls the flow of water between the states. Plus, the Corps reports to Congress, not Georgia. 

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Hartsfield and other harvesters warned Florida was suing the wrong entity. "You can go at it from any angle you want; it's not a winning battle when you're suing Georgia."

After the lawyers racked up more than $50-million from state taxpayers, the special master in the case determined Florida had sued the wrong party.

Then in December, after more than $57-million of legal work, the courts once again sided with Georgia.

The feds have declared the natural fisheries a disaster, and now the state is banning oyster harvesting in that bay for the next five years, shutting it down in the hope of rebuilding and restoring it. 

Meanwhile, the litigation is still ongoing and in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.