Return of the water wars

As Florida and Georgia fight it out, what story you get depends on which state you're in

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.

Political double-speak

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.

The AJC’s skeptical coverage of Scott’s comments overlaps with the thinking of politicos in its own home region. “There’s a lot of frustration among policy makers on this issue that Atlanta is being cast as a villain, kind of unfairly,” the paper’s Greg Bluestein, who co-wrote an article outlining the prospect of a long, costly legal battle, said in an interview with CJR. “It’s not just an Atlanta versus Florida issue. There’s a lot of concern among farmers in South Georgia that Atlanta is consuming too much water. You see a lot of hyperbole unchallenged and you see a lot of the nuances go unreported.”

‘Homey’ coverage

In terms of rhetoric coming from Florida, Bluestein might have been thinking of Ricky Banks, vice president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, who said, at the hearing before Scott’s announcement in Apalachicola Bay: “In Atlanta, they’re going to keep having babies. They’re going to keep needing more and more water. Let Atlanta stop watering their grass a little bit.”

Or maybe even Jon Steverson, executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management Distric. Steverson was perhaps pining for justice from a higher authority than the Supreme Court when he said, “The good Lord giveth and the [Army Corps of Engineers] and Georgia taketh away.”

Those quotes both come from a write-up in the weekly Apalachicola Times, which provided the most extensive coverage of Scott’s announcement and the field hearing. Times editor David Adlerstein’s article was polished and thorough, and showed a detailed understanding of the concerns of local oystermen.

But as Adlerstein acknowledged, the coverage didn’t capture a wide range of perspectives—which means it was short on critiques of the story Scott and the locals were telling.

“It is frustrating when there is a claim made by a politician to a totally receptive audience like they had here and there’s no fact-checking,” he said. “We just can’t. We’re two reporters. We cover Franklin County. We don’t have the resources to call up the Atlanta municipal water authority and find out what’s happening. I would say our reporting is well-sourced and accurate, but not necessarily balanced.”

And he’s open about the fact that his job as a small-town weekly editor includes advocating for the locals—“homey coverage,” he calls it.

“We can report, ‘this is what our oystermen have to say. This is what our politicians have to say.’ Georgia certainly has something to say and if you want to know what that is, you should go and find out,” he said.

(Adlerstein’s story did, however, include a response from Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who questioned Scott’s motives. That’s more than the Orlando Sentinel offered its readers in an article that reads like a rewritten press release.)

Bruce Ritchie, another veteran of the water wars and a former reporter for The Gainesville (FL) Sun and the Tallahassee Democrat, made a similar point when I spoke with him.

Ritchie followed up on the story for The Florida Current, an online news outlet covering politics and policy. Ritchie’s article a few days after Scott’s announcement didn’t sugar-coat Florida’s situation—the state’s legal battle is likely to be long and costly, and may face long odds of success. The Supreme Court hasn’t agreed to allocate water between states since 1945.

Reporting on the issue suffers because there are few full-time environment reporters, Ritchie said. (One of the deans of Florida environment reporting, Craig Pittman, did cover the story; his article is worth reading if not authoritative, and provides some good big-picture context.) Ritchie believes the dispute actually gets over-covered in Florida with “parachute reporting,” but it’s hard to do justice to the story without sources in both states. Ritchie complained that he can’t get Georgia officials to call him back; the AJC reported that Florida officials didn’t call the Georgia paper back.

“There are some genuinely difficult issues here that are tough to resolve even if everyone is getting along,” Ritchie said. “I think there isn’t enough fact-checking. It’s difficult to get the facts across state lines. This is the result of there being fewer specialist reporters, fewer environmental reporters. But my publication is called The Florida Current. It’s not called The Go Up To Georgia Current.”

Does gag order impede accountability?

But there are opportunities for reporters on both sides to cover their own states aggressively. In our conversation, Adlerstein was rightly skeptical—more skeptical than in his coverage—about the timing of Scott’s announcement.

“For years, Governor Scott’s reaction to all of this was ‘I’m not a fan of litigation’ and ‘we’re talking’ though he said much less than Bush or Crist about how they were talking, how many meetings, when, where,” Adlerstein said.

“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 CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith. Tags: , , , , , ,