By Bill Cotterell
APALACHICOLA, Florida (Reuters) - Florida Governor Rick Scott announced plans to sue the state of Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court for cutting the flow of water that feeds the oyster beds and fish-spawning areas of Apalachicola Bay.
Scott made the announcement after a two-hour field hearing by the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, which heard tales of economic devastation from oystermen complaining about the lack of fresh water flowing into the Gulf Coast bay.
The governor and local officials said the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers has allowed the impounding of water upstream in large reservoirs, at the expense of Apalachicola oysters.
Sunburned men told of oyster harvests being off by up to 90 percent, because of saltwater intrusion and loss of nutrients washing down from the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, which form the Apalachicola River about 50 miles north.
"The Army Corps of Engineers needs to turn loose that water," Cal Allen, a city commissioner in nearby Carrabelle, said after the hearing. "All those people around Lake Lanier (northeast of Atlanta) want water to run their jet skis. They've got no concept of the situation down here."
Rickey Banks, who has worked the bay for about 30 years, said in an interview, "salinity has taken over, predators moved in and we don't have nutrients moving down the river. Water flow is the life of the bay and we're losing it."
Abe Hartsfield, who has been on the bay 50 years, dished up chilled oysters for Scott, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and U.S. Representative Steve Southerland, the region's congressman, at a park on the water's edge.
Hartsfield said the bay is at about nine feet, due to heavy rains in recent weeks, but that it was at four or five feet during the summer drought and some areas were only a foot deep. Oysters can't live in that, he said.
"It took two of us two hours to get this bag," Hartsfield told the governor and congressional visitors, referring to the standard 60-pound measure for oysters. In better days, he said, it was easy to get as much as 10 bags in one hour.
As a result of the reduced oyster harvests, a local coalition that provides emergency financial help to families in hard times said the number of families it serves has more than double to about 150.
Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been discussing agriculture, industry and recreational uses of the rivers for decades.
Scott said it has not been decided if Alabama would be included in the suit. He said it will be filed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which hears disputes between states.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal called the move by Scott a frivolous waste of time and money, saying Georgia had waited more than a year for Florida to respond to its latest settlement proposal.
"Gov. Scott's threat to sue my state in the U.S. Supreme Court greatly disappoints me after I negotiated in good faith for two years," Deal said in a statement. "More than a year ago, I offered a framework for a comprehensive agreement. Florida never responded."
"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," he 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.
"Because of the actions Georgia's taken - we've negotiated with them, they've not negotiated in good faith - they've kept our water, it's been going on for decades," said Scott.
"The water was flowing here before, before the Corps made its decision. That was our water."
Southerland and Rubio said they would mount "a full court press" in Congress to direct the Corps to release more water and raise average river levels year-round.
"This is not just about their traditions, it's their livelihoods," Rubio said of the fishing villages along the mid-Panhandle. "You have a community and an entire industry that's on the verge of being rendered extinct."
(Editing by David Adams; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)