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David Pendered

Attention to Apalachicola fishing industry touches a nerve among Atlanta water resource leaders

Editor’s Note: This is the first of three stories this week that will look at water issues affecting metro Atlanta.

By David Pendered

Maybe it was just the comments about metro Atlanta’s water usage by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. that triggered the outcry.

The waterfront of Apalachicola, Fla. still serves more watermen than tourists. Credit: David Pendered

The waterfront of Apalachicola, Fla. still serves more watermen than tourists. Credit: David Pendered

Or it could have been a story in The New York Times, which ran a few days earlier, on the potential demise of the seafood industry in Apalachicola Bay. One factor cited was a shortage of fresh water entering the bay from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee Flint river system.

Taken separately or collectively, the comments by Kennedy and the Times piece alarmed some business and government leaders involved in the management of metro Atlanta’s water resources. The ruckus reminds that despite full lakes, the region and Georgia are in a pivotal moment concerning long-term water issues.

Just a small handful of those issues include:

  • The current update of the 1950s-era Army Corps of Engineers’ water control manual for managing water flow and other issues. An important report was released in March;
  • The mandated update by 2014 of the 15-county water plan by Metropolitan North Georgia Water District;
  • Georgia’s decision to fund and build additional reservoirs, a policy that’s strongly protested by environmental groups including the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper;
  • Pending legislation in Congress and the Georgia Legislature that pertains to water management policies.
The Apalachicola River is 14 feet deep in front of the town. Once the river enters the bay, the water is no more than 2 feet deep for at least a mile offshore, according to NOAA charts. Credit: David Pendered

The Apalachicola River is 14 feet deep in front of the town. Once the river enters the bay, the water is no more than 2 feet deep for at least a mile offshore, according to NOAA charts. Credit: David Pendered

Kennedy got a lot of attention when he opined this month that environmental concerns don’t get enough attention in the tri-state water war. Kennedy, the president of the board of the Waterkeeper Alliance, spoke as he traveled in Georgia to the alliance’s annual meeting at Callaway Gardens.

“When Atlanta and the state of Georgia and Alabama and Florida struggle over competing claims to the water flows, we have to also consider the impacts on the aquatic ecosystem, not just for the sake of the oysters and fisheries… but also for the human populations and the giant economic engines” they support, Kennedy said in an Associated Press story.

To Kennedy’s point, the environment is not the top issue cited by the public in a recent federal report. However, the environment is ranked among the top three issues in public comments gathered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and released in a March report. The top concerns were:

  1. Water management recommendations – calling for a balancing of water needs along the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system;
  2. Socioeconomics and recreation – calling for consideration of adverse economic situations that result from low water levels in lakes, and the, “potential for collapse of the seafood and fishing industry in the Apalachicola Bay region;”
  3. Biological resources – flow concerns for the Apalachicola Bay and other biologic and fishery issues.
Comments by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. about metro Atlanta's water management sparked responses from Atlanta leaders. Credit: opportunitygreen.com

Comments by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. about metro Atlanta’s water management sparked responses from Atlanta leaders. Credit: opportunitygreen.com

Kennedy’s comments prompted the Regional Business Coalition of Metro Atlanta to swing into action. Terry Lawler, the group’s executive director, responded directly to Kennedy’s contention in a statement Lawler distributed around the state. The headline reads: “RFK, Jr. Statements on Water and Oysters Are All Wet,” followed by a 750-word statement that begins:

“In recent newspaper articles and interviews, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., president of the Waterkeepers Alliance, made some factually incorrect statements about water use in Georgia as well as metro Atlanta’s and Georgia’s ongoing efforts to conserve and protect our water resources.”

Katherine Zitsch, who in January became the director of the Metro North Georgia Water Planning District, said she thinks the region does not receive due credit for water conservation efforts implemented over the past decade.

“We are committed to water conservation and that message is getting overlooked, Zitsch said. “The good work we’re doing, and have done, is not coming out anywhere.

“I don’t think where we are today is the end game in water conservation,” Zitsch said. “I think it is an ever-evolving process as technology improves and we educate the public. In July, we roll out another water conservation campaign. It’s one of the many things we are working on to change water consumption practices.”

Sally Bethea, the founding director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said she doesn’t see a reason for the recent uproar.

“Robert Kennedy was talking very generally about the importance of all stakeholders in the river basin working together,” Bethea said. “I think he noted accurately that all too often environmental quality is not given enough attention in decisions about river basins.

“I’m puzzled by the defensiveness of some metro boosters,” Bethea said. “Indeed, over the last decade, metro Atlanta has taken some important steps to conserve water…. But we still have a lot more to do.”


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. Gypsyjon June 18, 2013 10:10 am

    Water conservation in Atlanta?? You can not be serious!  Every office park, apartment complex, residences etc continue to waste huge amounts of water on lawns…give me a break…There is little water conservation effort being made in Atlanta.Report

  2. SharonB June 18, 2013 11:17 am

    I was just about to say the same thing- asking people to water their lawn on a specific day is NOT conservation. I have never seen any evidence of water conservation in Atlanta.Report

  3. vicy bryant mclane June 18, 2013 11:27 am

    I can’t speak for those states but when I lived in Florida, we could only water one day a week at certain hours. Had to use nozzles if a car was washed. Timed showers, no running water while brushing teeth. Low flo toilets and many other water conservation rules. These rules need to be put in practice everywhere.Report

    1. Loyd June 22, 2013 1:35 pm

      vicy bryant mclane I wonder where you lived in Florida.  I began going to the Apalachicola area in the mid 60’s as a kid and now have a vacation home there. For 40 years I have heard the moanin and groanin about the bay,  but it has never reached the point (even in the horrible drought years of 2007, 08, and 09) when the water consumers in the Florida panhandle were placed on even voluntary restrictions.  The measures you mention are almost a carbon copy of the mandatory measures put in place in N. GA during that drought resulting in a usage decrease of over 25%.  I know the good folks of Apalachicola get their water from deep wells rather than the river, but when you are asking everybody upstream to sacrifice to benefit you…well, an appearance of shared suffering would be “politically correct” and appreciated!Report

  4. Patty June 18, 2013 12:00 pm

    Living in the Apalachicola area I see what is going on with the seafood/ Oyster industry here. Because not enough fresh water is coming down the river, the Oysters are dying off. I am sorry but so that your big city can have water our men and woman are having to try to find work else where because there is not enough oysters out there to make a good living anymore because if I may be so bold to say it, ” Atlanta you are KILLING our Oysters.” These people here make their living on the water here and have done so for generations. Now they are having to learn a new trade and are coming to your big city to find work. So When people from Atlanta can’t find work at home think about what has happened and why you have so many new comers to your city.Report

    1. Loyd June 18, 2013 9:04 pm

      A few questions to consider:
      1/    Are you aware that 93% of the water in the ACF basin enters the system south of Buford Dam (Lake Lanier)?
      2/   Are you aware that 85% of the water taken out of the system by Atlanta users is treated and returned to the basin?
      3/   Are you aware that the metro Atlanta has cut its water usage more than 20% in the last 10 years?
      4.  Are you aware if Atlanta was replaced by forests, there would be less run-off and therefore less water entering the bay?
      5/  Can you tell me how the oyster fishermen managed to survive before Lake Lanier came into existence in 1957?Report

  5. Loyd June 18, 2013 6:31 pm

    I wonder if any of the posters below read the long article in the Tallahassee Democrat in late April which was based on a study of the current state of aquaculture in Apalachicola Bay.  It placed the lion’s share of blame for the decline of oyster production in the bay on over harvesting and failure of the industry to re-seed the beds.  The “greed” of Atlanta was certainly not seen as the primary culprit.Report

  6. TDL1969 June 19, 2013 11:21 am

    If you want to know the facts about metro Atlanta’s water conservation efforts please read http://www.northgeorgiawater.org/plans/water-supply-and-water-conservation-management-planReport


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