APALACHICOLA, Fla. (AP) - Gov. Rick Scott, saying it's time to fight for the economic future of the Apalachicola Bay region, announced Tuesday that Florida will file a lawsuit against Georgia over its consumption of freshwater in a river system that serves three Southeastern states.
The decision by Florida's governor to proceed with a lawsuit directly against Georgia is an escalation in a legal dispute lasting more than two decades.
Scott charged that Georgia has been unwilling to come up with a reasonable approach to sharing water that flows downstream from Georgia into Alabama and Florida.
His move comes as the region's oyster industry has suffered a near collapse and a day after federal officials declared a fishery disaster for oystermen in the Gulf Coast. Oysters need a mix of both fresh and salt water in order to thrive.
"They've not negotiated in good faith; they've kept our water," said Scott, adding Alabama has not decided if it would join in the suit.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal reacted harshly to Scott's announcement, saying it was "absurd to waste taxpayers money and prolong this process with a court battle." He said Georgia offered up a framework for an agreement more than a year ago. But he also predicted that Georgia would ultimately win in court.
"While the timing seems to work for political purposes, it's ironic this comes at a time when Florida and Georgia are experiencing historically high rainfall," Deal said in a statement. "The fastest and best resolution is an agreement, not a lawsuit going into an election year."
Scott announced the lawsuit, which will be filed in September, shortly after U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson held a field hearing on the impact of water flow on the Apalachicola Bay. The Chattahoochee and Flint rivers merge to form the Apalachicola River which flows into the bay.
The two senators said they backed the decision to sue Georgia directly. Rubio, who ate some raw oysters with Scott during his visit, called the lawsuit part of a "full-court press" to take action to save a community in peril of losing its livelihood.
The dispute involving Alabama, Georgia and Florida hit a crescendo in 2009 when a federal judge ruled that metro Atlanta had little right to take water from Lake Lanier, a federal reservoir on the Chattahoochee River. The judge ordered that metro Atlanta's water withdrawals would be drastically restricted unless the three governors reached a settlement.
A three-judge panel from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling in 2011, finding that metro Atlanta could use the reservoir for water with restrictions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently studying how much water the North Georgia region can take from the system.
But top corps officials acknowledged at Tuesday's hearing that it will be years before that study is complete.
Florida oystermen who testified said action is needed now for the beleaguered industry. A group of 100 people gathered outside the Franklin County Courthouse before the hearing saying it was time for someone to stop Georgia's "unbridled" thirst for water.
Water officials in Atlanta disputed that the metro area's consumption would harm the oyster fishery. Katherine Zitsch, manager of natural resources division at the Atlanta Regional Commission, said metro Atlanta consumes 2 to 3 percent of the water in the basin formed by the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers. The Chattahoochee and Flint merge at the border of Florida and Georgia to become the Apalachicola River, which flows south into the Gulf of Mexico.
Zitsch said droughts would have a far greater effect on the oyster fishery than Atlanta's water usage.
"Metro Atlanta has one of the most aggressive water conservation programs in the country," she said. "We recognize the need for proper stewardship of our water resources."
More recently, U.S. senators from Alabama and Florida tried to set stricter limits on how much water Georgia can use from federal reservoirs. So far, those rules have not passed.
Nelson and Rubio said they still plan to see federal action, including trying to get Congress to appropriate money to the Apalachicola Bay region to help provide a short-term fix. Both senators it could be a battle to get the money at a time when Congress is deeply divided over spending.
But Rubio said more needs to be done to insure the oyster industry - which employs roughly 2,000 people in the Apalachicola area and produces 90 percent of all Florida oysters - survives.
"You have an entire industry that is on the verge of being extinct because of government inaction," Rubio said.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi called the decision to proceed with a lawsuit the state's "last and best chance to save Apalachicola and the surrounding region."
Christopher Kise, an attorney with the Foley and Lardner law firm hired by the state to help with the litigation, said that Florida will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to divide the water equitably with Georgia so that state will "be responsible for its own growth and consumption."
Associated Press reporter Ray Henry contributed to this story from Atlanta
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