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Wandering Florida

The Florida Downstream Blues
By Joe Murphy
Nov 8, 2007 - 2:39:38 PM

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I love oysters.  I love them because when they come out fresh from the Gulf of Mexico its like a little bit of heaven has gone from the bounty of the sea to the tip of my tongue.  Shellfish, finfish, and other things that people gather from the sea are important along the Gulf Coast of Florida.  They are important to working families, they are important to the economy of Florida, and they are important because they are integral pieces of an ecosystem that has evolved over thousands of years.

 Sometimes when I’m feeling a little ornery I whisper to myself that if folks want to make the regional water wars between Florida, Alabama, and Georgia about people versus shellfish I say bring it on.  Oysters need a home too, and they taste like heaven.

Truth be told though the debate about water for Georgia versus water for Florida or Alabama is about much, much more than that and to reduce it to people versus shellfish creates the illusion that people bear little or no responsibility for the mess we often find ourselves in.  Neither Florida nor Alabama can truthfully claim much moral high ground when it comes to issues of water conservation and growth management, but nor should we see degraded natural resources, risks to public health, potential energy supply disruptions, or economic harm because Georgia decided the best way to handle a water and growth crisis was to hope that it rained.

Along the Gulf Coast of Florida the Gulf of Mexico, its health and wildlife, and its future is a part of who we are and a part of our future that connects us to each other, and to the broader idea that we all essentially live downstream.  In this case we literally live downstream from Georgia and the future and survival of the Apalachicola River depends on our neighbors to the north having the grace and wisdom to live within their means. 

While there is indeed a severe and prolonged natural or hydrological drought in the Southeastern U.S., there has been a much longer and more pronounced drought in political courage and leadership in Georgia (and Alabama and Florida for that matter) to limit growth and enact meaningful water conservation.  Georgia is in this mess in part due to natural cycles, but mostly due to the explosive growth occurring in central and north Georgia and almost no limits on water use until late this summer/early fall.

Both Governor Crist of Florida and Governor Riley of Alabama have been pushing hard recently to oppose Georgia’s attempts to severely limit downstream flows and to undermine the Endangered Species Act by arguing it should be suspended in this situation.  Governor Crist, to his credit, has engaged in this fight because there are human and natural communities downstream that need that water just as metro Atlanta does.  Again, this is not about people vs. mussels as Gov. Perdue would like the public to believe, this is about folks in three states and the natural systems they depend on.  This drought has been coming on for a long time, and Georgia has been closing their eyes, saying yes to any and all growth, and hoping for rain for far too long.

I am sympathetic to the situation Georgia finds itself in, and understand the Gov. Perdue has to advocate for his state, but that does not mean Florida, Alabama, or federal agencies like the US Army Corps of Engineers or US Fish and Wildlife Service have to surrender their responsibility to the people and species they serve in Florida and Alabama?  Real people in numerous communities in Florida, Alabama, and south Georgia for that matter need that water too.  And, if the Endangered Species Act has any value, teeth, or purpose it has to be a strong law in all occasions. 

There can be some compromise that recognizes the situation that Georgia is in, but if I never paid my water bill and let a hundred people move into my home…. once my water was cut off should I be able, based simply on my lack of planning and new found need, to come to your house to steal your water?  Florida and Alabama should find ways to help their neighbor, but Georgia is asking for a free pass at their expense. 

Joe Murphy is the Florida Program Coordinator for the Gulf Restoration Network.  You can learn more about GRN by visiting

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