MIAMI, FL — The “water wars” are back on.
Two weeks ago, Florida Gov. Rick Scott traveled to the Apalachicola Bay, on the Gulf of Mexico in the northwest corner of the state, to announce that his administration plans to sue Georgia over access to water in the Apalachicola-Flint-Chattahoochee river basin—effectively cutting off negotiations between the states and asking the Supreme Court to intervene.
Scott’s seaside announcement, coming after a congressional field hearing that featured US Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, was a made-for-media event. A number of news outlets in both states jumped in to cover it, and much of that coverage was good. A reader who sifted through it all could come away informed about the history and stakes of the dispute, the basic arguments from each state, even the political and legal context.
But most readers won’t be doing that, of course. And while the overall reporting was solid, most outlets grabbed only part of the story—with hometown politicians too often allowed to frame the discussion. Coverage was also limited by resource constraints, and by a gag order that is shielding key documents from records requests. And then there are even questions about whether the very term “water wars” puts too much focus on the political battle between the states, instead of on finding solutions to a decades-old regional problem.
Here’s a look at what the recent coverage did, and didn’t, accomplish—and some thoughts on where the story might go next.
Scott’s argument for the nation’s top court to step in is rooted in the troubles of the Apalachicola oyster industry, which produces 90 percent of Florida’s oyster harvest, and 10 percent of the nation’s. The oyster population in the bay, which depends on a mix of salty seawater and freshwater from the Apalachicola River, has collapsed over the past two years. Scott’s announcement came the day after federal authorities declared the oyster fishery a resource disaster area, paving the way for federal relief funds, if Congress can find any.
“They’ve kept our water,” Scott declared before a sympathetic crowd of Florida politicians and Apalachicola Bay oystermen. Atlanta’s uncontrolled growth and lush lawns are to blame for the bay’s increasing salinity and the decline of the oyster beds, Sunshine State politicians cry.
Well, that’s one of their explanations, anyway. Up north of the state line, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was quick to note that less than a year ago Scott had pointed to other factors. “The exact causes of the crisis are in dispute. Scott’s statement Tuesday blames a thirsty Georgia, but even he has acknowledged the role of over-fishing, as well as drought and changing salinity, in depleting the oyster beds,” the AJC’s Daniel Malloy and Dan Chapman wrote (subscription required).
The Atlanta paper went on to add:
Concerns have been raised that over-fishing by the Gulf’s oystermen has contributed to the fishing disaster. Most oyster beds—but not Apalachicola’s—were closed after the 2010 Gulf oil spill.
“This led to over-harvesting of illegal and sub-legal oysters further damaging an already stressed population,” Scott said in a statement last September.
A few days later, another AJC article by Chapman—this one with an Apalachicola dateline—took a closer look at the possibility that overfishing in the wake of the BP oil spill is driving the current crisis:
In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off Louisiana led to the closure of every oyster bed from Texas to just west of Apalachicola. Fishermen descended in droves on the bay, one of the few oyster grounds still open.
… In June 2010, for the first time ever, the state expanded the time oystermen could fish the bay from five to seven days a week. It also opened up the winter harvesting areas.”
The article also quotes a Florida conservationist who said state inspectors had cut back on enforcement against illegal harvesting, because “they thought there was too much regulation.” Just in case the point wasn’t clear, the headline drives it home: “Fla. points fingers, neglects role in oyster woes.”
The AJC’s coverage raises some good points about Scott’s double-speak and Florida’s blame-shifting—and it’s worth noting that those points didn’t come up in the Florida-based coverage, even though Scott has few friends in the state press corps.