“So what’s changed? Why sue now? Scott says, ‘our talks broke down.’ What talks? When? Did he just wake up and think, ‘I gotta sue Georgia today?’” he continued. “And how often do they say they’re going to sue? That’s another oddity. Usually they just sue. Clearly the smell test suggests this was overly political.”

Those are good questions. But as Ritchie explained in a sharp Florida Current article on Friday, they are questions that politicians in both states can dodge—thanks to a confidentiality order issued by a federal court in 2010 that covers negotiations between Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, the third party in the water wars.

Georgia’s Deal has said his state made a fair proposal, and Scott blew up talks for political reasons—“we have shown good faith on our side,” he told the AJC. Scott obviously disagrees. In an attempt to tackle that issue, the Current made open-records requests for Georgia’s latest proposal, Florida’s reply, any other proposals by Florida, and dates and locations of meetings between the states. Officials turned down all the requests, citing the gag order.

Ritchie’s article ends with an apt quote from a First Amendment activist: “How do we know which state government is telling us the truth? Who do we hold accountable?”

Getting beyond the ‘water wars’ frame

Floridians who remember an earlier Georgia governor’s response to drought—pray for rain—may be inclined to trust their own leaders.

But focusing too much on that history ignores the strides toward conservation Georgia has made over the past several years, according to veteran Florida journalist Cynthia Barnett, the author of two books on water. She noted one fact that I haven’t seen in the coverage: per-capita water consumption in the Atlanta area is lower than almost anywhere in Florida. (Key West, which has to bring most of its water from the mainland, consumes less.)

“The fact is, Georgia and Atlanta have actually done a better job than we have when it comes to conservation, so who are we to tell them what to do?” Barnett said. “Down here, we sort of look at Atlanta and think of this big, sprawling, water-guzzling city.”

But Barnett is not especially interested in adjudicating the “water wars.” Though she used the phrase as a chapter title in her first book, she thinks the “us-versus-them story” that has now prevailed for two decades muddies other important issues.

“I don’t want to be preachy—just want to make the point that instead of parroting the politicians’ unhelpful construct that this is a war, it would be great if journalists could forward the story by exposing the travesty of the 20 years of precious time and taxpayer money spent without one drop of help for our freshwaters,” she said.

In researching one of her books, Blue Revolution, Barnett found that between 2001 and 2010 Georgia and Florida had spent more than $30 million just in legal fees on the dispute. What could that sum have accomplished as a down payment toward far-reaching conservation or restoration efforts?

That’s a question the reporters on both sides of the state line should pursue going forward. It’s important to note how the “war” story is told in different ways on either side of the border—and to draw some lessons about the value of diverse source networks, or at least reading reporters with different sources. And in trying to suss out the history of the negotiations, news outlets across both states have a common interest in bringing pressure against the gag order.

But the focus on the causes of water shortage, and the oyster collapse, isn’t just about checking politicians’ rhetoric and assigning responsibility. It’s also about trying to steer the discussion toward addressing these problems before they get worse.

“It’s important to go back at it and look at what the states are really doing,” said Pittman, of the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s like covering a slow-moving hurricane. It’s a disaster.”

This post has been updated to include more complete information about Bruce Ritchie’s career history.

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Susannah Nesmith is a Miami-based freelance writer and the faculty adviser to Barry University's student newspaper, The Barry Buccaneer. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.