Florida sues Georgia to protect oyster farmers in water dispute

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Tue Oct 1, 2013 2:22pm EDT

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Oct 1 (Reuters) - Florida filed a lawsuit on Tuesday asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce neighboring Georgia's use of water from the Chattahoochee River that feeds the oyster beds and fish-spawning areas of Florida's Gulf Coast.

"Georgia has refused to fairly share the waters that flow between our two states," Florida Governor Rick Scott said in a statement explaining his reasons for the lawsuit, the latest chapter of a decades-old feud over water rights.

"Generations of Florida families have relied upon these waters for their livelihood, but now risk losing their way of life if Georgia's actions are not stopped," he added.

The governor and local officials say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has allowed Georgia to impound water upstream in large reservoirs, at the expense of oysters beds in Apalachicola Bay.

Low water levels in the bay have resulted in higher salinity, increased disease and predators in the oyster beds.

Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been discussing agriculture, industry and recreational uses of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, which form the Apalachicola River about 50 miles north.

A spokesman for Georgia Governor Nathan Deal called Florida's lawsuit "frivolous."

"Florida is receiving historically high water flows at the state line this year, but it needs a bogeyman to blame for its poor management of Apalachicola Bay," the spokesman, Brian Robinson, said in a statement.

"This lawsuit is political theater and nothing more," Robinson added.

The metro Atlanta area gets most of its water - 360 million gallons a day - from the Chattahoochee River and Georgia's consumption is expected to nearly double by 2035, Florida says.

Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, said workers, who used to get six or eight 60-pound bags of oysters a day from the bay, are now lucky to get two or three.

He said "it's going to get worse" for the local economy, with many boat owners leaving the Florida Panhandle in search of work.

"I'm just worried that the lawsuit is going to take a long time," he said. "I'd like to see the governors get together and work out a solution." (Editing by David Adams and Leslie Gevirtz)