North Florida’s Apalachicola region remains the subject of ongoing lawsuits between Florida and Georgia over water use. This decades-long water war has taken a toll: a decline in the health of the Bay has impacted the region’s key seafood industry and the economy of the city that depends on it. Now, North Florida lawmakers Bill Montford and Jason Shoaf are trying to help by allocating millions of dollars to help with water quality issues but environmentalists are wary.
The Apalachicola’s Bay is prized for its seafood harvest, mostly oysters. In 2012 the bay collapsed, leading the federal government to declare a fisheries disaster. In 2013, Florida sued Georgia, arguing the Northern neighbor was holding and using too much water upstream. The case went to a federal magistrate who said Florida should have sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Supreme Court sent the case to another magistrate who recently ruled against Florida’s request to cap Georgia’s water use. That arbiter pointed to a history of droughts and overharvesting in the Apalachicola Bay. In the meantime, area residents and businesses have suffered economically.
“To encourage responsible development and protect the environment in our historic city, we must replace our aging water and sewer systems, yet local revenues to do that don’t exist under any realistic scenario," Apalachicola Mayor Kevin Begos told a Senate environmental panel in December.
The city of Apalachicola is one of two populated areas designated as an area of critical state concern. Begos is backing a proposal by North Florida's Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee) and Rep. Jason Shoaf (R-Port St. Joe) that would steer millions of dollars to the area each year. Begos says Apalachicola cannot generate enough money on its own to fund its infrastructure needs. Furthermore, the region got hit by one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever make landfall -- 2018 Hurricane Michael -- which Begos says caused even more damage to an already fragile area.
“I understand the enormous budget pressures," he said, "but this bill is vital to the future health of the city and Apalachicola bay.”
Montford and Shoaf want to transfer $5 million a year from the state’s Florida Forever land-buying program to the Apalachicola region. In addition to water infrastructure projects, the funding could be used to purchase land with an eye toward preservation and water filtration and cleanliness.
“As Floridians, we’ve got to do whatever we can to protect the special environment that we have throughout this state," said Montford, a 5th Generation North Floridian who grew up along the river.
"There’s not another state in this country that can brag and boast about what we have from an environmental standpoint and if we don’t do it, no one else will.”
The effort comes as Florida remains entangled with its northern Neighbor Georgia over water use in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee river system, which supplies both states. Florida wants more time to file its exception the special master’s report siding with Georgia. The case could go back before the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile another lawsuit is moving ahead. This one deals with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which administers water in the system. The group EarthJustice says the Army Corps has mismanaged the water reservoirs.
While there is support for the plan to steer money toward the Apalachicola region, environmentalists are also hedging. That’s because the source of the funding, Florida Forever, is a politically sensitive issue. It’s been starved of money for years. Right now, the House and Senate are far apart on how much money to give the program. Florida Forever is funded through the Land Acquisition trust fund which is meant to conserve land, not fund sewer projects. Environmentalists worry Montford and Shoaf’s bill could set a precedent that allows others to try and tap Florida Forever for non-land purchases, something that has happened with 2014's Amendment 1 which voters approved to created a dedicated pot of money specifically for conservation and restoration projects. Lastly, the legislature is in its final weeks, and time is running out for the Apalachicola funding initiative to make it into this year’s budget.