Florida and Georgia have been arguing about the water that flows into the Apalachicola Bay for three decades, about as long as Tommy Ward and his family have been selling oysters from the bay.
Florida says Georgia draws more than its fair share of water from the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers before they fuse to create the Apalachicola River. Georgia uses the water to supply thirsty Atlanta and the vast farmland south of the metropolis. But its disruption of the freshwater flow has increased the salinity of the bay and the number of oyster-eating predators, which are able to thrive in saltier water.
The result: The virtual collapse of the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay.
Gone is the era when 50 oyster boats could haul in more than 700 pounds of oysters each after a day on the bay. Now the only oysters Ward sells are those he grows in cages. His oyster distribution business, which has been in his family for three generations, has had to diversify, selling seafood generally. "We've gone from selling 100 percent oysters to about zero percent to be truthful with you," he said.
To increase water flow into the bay, Florida in 2013 asked the U.S. Supreme Court to cap Georgia's water usage at 1992 levels,
when the population of metropolitan Atlanta was about half what it is today. Georgia says that its water usage is not responsible for the environmental and economic decline of the Apalachicola Bay.
During a week filled with U.S. Supreme Court-related news, many overlooked the significance of the ruling the court issued last week in the Florida-Georgia dispute: Taking a rare — if not unprecedented — stance, the court seemed to suggest that in water disputes between states, the health of an aquatic ecosystem can be considered alongside drinking-water and farming concerns.
Florida's odds did not look good as its case was headed to the Supreme Court. Ralph Lancaster, the special master appointed by the court to oversee most hearings in the case, said that though the bay had been affected by overuse of water upstream, it wasn't clear that capping Georgia's water use would solve the problem.
But the justices disagreed, saying Lancaster used too strong a standard in evaluating whether adjustments upstream could solve problems in the Apalachicola Bay. The court remanded the case back to Lancaster who must reconsider Florida's proposal and evidence.
"Florida is asserting that they want water for fish and fauna, and that's the first time that's ever been presented in one of these cases, and that's what makes it interesting," said Jesse Richardson, a professor at the West Virginia University College of Law who specializes in water issues.
John Draper, a lawyer who has represented numerous states in interstate water disputes, agreed that going forward, environmental issues "might get some notice and be a matter of concern. It may not decide the case, but it's come into the mix of what's likely to be considered by the court."
Last week's decision all but ensures the legal saga will continue. Now the task for Florida is to prove how an increased freshwater flow would help the bay bounce back. It hardly guarantees the state a remedy, but it may mark a shift in how lawyers approach water cases as growing populations and climate change heighten competition for an increasingly scarce resource.
It's been an unusually active time in water law, experts say, with four active interstate water disputes before the court. Such disputes seldom focus on ecology — in most arguments over water rights, states want their fair share for drinking and farming.
Of course, Florida's concerns are not exclusively environmental. The health of the bay supports an industry that, if not vital to the state, is emblematic of it. Fishing is an economic driver for the region of the Florida panhandle that hugs the Gulf of Mexico.
Some environmental advocates say it makes sense to consider ecological concerns in court precisely because they are so tied to economic issues.
"Ecological function at the end of the day is all about human well-being and economics and the enjoyment of resources, whether that's enjoying them from an income standpoint like a farmer or fisherman, or recreation standpoint," said Gordon Rogers, executive director of Flint Riverkeeper, which has been a stakeholder in trying to increase flows along the river and preserve agricultural access for Georgians.
"We're not hurting the river's feelings when we're depleting that flow; we're harming the people that value that flow."
The origin of the Florida-Georgia dispute lies north of Atlanta at Lake Lanier, a 59-square-mile body of water about 50 miles from the city, which is managed by the Army Corps of Engineers and supplies drinking water to about 60 percent of Georgia.
The Corps regulates how much water to release, but metro Atlanta and farmers absorb much of it as it works its way south through Georgia. Because the Corps remains in control of much of the water in the system, the special master initially recommended rejecting Florida's argument, saying the Corps bears much of the responsibility for determining downstream flows.
"A lot of people and lives and economies are at stake with Lake Lanier, and so much is dependent on it, it's almost like putting all this pressure on something the size of a pinhead," said Joanna Cloud, executive director of the Lake Lanier Association, which promotes use of the lake as a water source and recreation spot.
Those on the Georgia side point out Atlanta's water use is minimal — about 1.3 percent of the water in the basin — considering its population and economic importance.
It's an argument U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas seemed to buy. In his dissenting opinion, Thomas cited figures that the Atlanta area accounts for 98 percent of the population along the rivers and accounts for 99 percent of the region's economic production.
But Gil Rogers of the Southern Environmental Law Center said that's the wrong way to view such disputes. "The species downstream is kind of the canary in the coal mine in terms of how healthy the system is for human use and for non-human use," Rogers said. "It's a bit of an artificial distinction, because if the waterway is harmed environmentally, it's either going to be impossible to drink or hard to drink, and it's going to limit the uses that river can sustain."
Like flooding after heavy rains, residents who rely on Water County Water & Sewerage Authority are becoming accustomed to steadily rising water rates.
For the second year in a row the WCWSA board of directors approved rate hikes: about 36 percent last year and about 26 percent beginning Aug. 1, 2018.
Not only did last year's rate increase boost the base rate, it also eliminated WCWSA not charging for the first 1,000 gallons of metered water.
A recent notice to customers states:
"The Walker County Water & Sewerage Authority (WCWSA) Board of Directors made the unanimous decision to increase water and sewer rates at its June 12, 2018 meeting, declaring the rate hike is necessary to address the increased cost in operations."
A little more than a year ago, a source well tested positive for E. coli. The test was positive before the water exited the filtration and treatment — tainted water was not delivered to customers — but that positive test required a boil-water notice being issued to comply with Georgia Environmental Protection Division regulations.
To remove the boil-water advisory the county leased two portable filtration units — each the size of a tractor-trailer — at a combined monthly expense of $60,000.
When it was found that the system's filtration equipment was in such poor condition as to make its repair unfeasible, the mobile units viewed as a short-term fix ended up costing rate payers more than $820,000 since June 2017.
Early this year, Commissioner Shannon Whitfield said an engineering firm had been hired to develop a plan to upgrade the treatment plant on Lee Clarkson Road, a process that might take "10 months or so" and could cost $10 million.
A major reason making modernization of the treatment plant necessary is that it was designed to treat clear, well water, the original source of the system's water supply. The plant was not set up to handle ground water that carried sediment. It was surface water making its way to the incoming treatment plant that led to the EPD order.
The commissioner had been in office a short time before learning that the northern end of the county had an old and decaying sewer system.
Not only was the system failing, it relies on Chattanooga's Moccasin Bend Wastewater Plant for treatment and is billed for that service.
Officials have estimated that as much as 40 percent of the water leaking into the sewer system comes from broken lines, underground springs and storm water runoff. Not only has the volume flowing north for treatment before being discharged into the Tennessee River grown, the problem is compounded by changes in how much the county is charged.
In February, Whitfield said the monthly bill for treatment had increased from between $40,000 and $50,000 each month to about $220,000.
That is why WCWSA board members spent more than $920,000 during the past year to repair about 3 1/2 miles of leaky sewer lines.
In prepared remarks, the WCWSA states, "Additional system upgrades, including infrastructure improvements to water and sewer lines, are estimated to cost into the tens of millions of dollars. These improvements will be made over the next 36 months. Over time, these investments will improve the overall water & sewer operating system"
County spokesman Joe Legge said improvements are already being noticed regarding the sewer system that was experiencing more than 100 million gallons a month of infiltration into the sewer system.
"Due to some of the sliplining that has occurred over the past 12 months, that number has been reduced to about 60 million gallons a month," Legge said. "That's still a lot of water getting into the system that has to be treated with no revenue associated with it. It literally costs the Water Authority money every time it rains."
The millions of dollars needed to restore the water and sewer system will be paid by customers. As of August 2018, the residential base water charge will increase by $4 per month, along with a $1.15-per-one-thousandgallon usage increase.
Customers who are also provided sewer services from WCWSA, will see a $4 per month base rate increase for sewer, along with a $1.15 per gallon sewer usage increase.
The WCWSA offered this example: The average family household of four people uses 5,000 gallons of water per month. In this example the customer's bill would increase by $9.75 ($4 per month base rate increase + 5.75 usage increase). If this customer also has sewer service, the monthly sewer increase in this example would also increase by $9.75 ($4 per month base rate increase + 5.75 usage increase). In this example, the family would pay an additional $19.50 per month for both water and sewer.
In closing, the WCWSA notice to customers said its "board and staff leadership, along with industry engineering experts, have worked diligently to review long-term solutions that will carry us forward for the next 30 years. Regretfully, due to years of costly neglect of our vital infrastructure, the Board agreed unanimously there is no other viable option at this time."
The Dutch government will establish a diplomatic office in Atlanta to serve five Southeastern states — Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee and North Carolina — now covered by the consulate in Miama.
Earlier this month, officials said a consul general to head this, the fifth such consulate in the United State, will be selected this summer and a counsulate should open in the Atlanta area sometime this fall.
Trade and investments between the Netherlands and the five states that fall within the new Atlanta Consulate General provide about 80,000 jobs and create about $3.7 billion in exports to the Netherlands.
Business and government officials have noted similarities between the Port of Rotterdam and Amsterdam's Schipol Airport as European import-export centers and Georgia's Port of Savannah and Jackson-Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta.
"The economic ties between the Netherlands and the United States are strong. Atlanta is a natural home for a new Dutch
representation to further strengthen our partnership with the US. Atlanta is in many ways a gateway to the United States, while the Netherlands is a gateway to Europe. And much like Atlanta, the Netherlands is a hub for smart logistics, financial technology, and cybersecurity," said Sigrid Kaag, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation.
The consulate in Georgia will primarily be involved in strengthing economic ties between the two nations.
Earlier this summer, the Dutch firm VDL Groep announced plans to invest $17 million and hire about 100 workers in Hall County.
The Eindehoven-based firm operates in 20 countries and has a worldwide workforce of about 17,500. Already, VDL has plants in Virginia, South Carolina, Michigan and two in California.
In a news release, the compay said VDL Industries Gainesville will be a specialist in metal and metal sheet processing, robotic welding and assembly for customers based in the US and those venturing over there.
The Gainesville factory is expected to open in September, officials said.