U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researchers are revisiting a 2008 report that found keeping the river flowing at a minimum of 5,000 cubic feet per second would not threaten the existence of the endangered fat threeridge mussel. But in September, scientists reported that the mussels had moved higher on the riverbank than during the drought-stricken period when the study was completed.
As many as 1,200 endangered mussels were exposed to the air in September when river levels dropped, said Donald Imm, a project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Panama City, Fla. It’s not clear whether they died.
“These mussels, they are really a canary-in-the-coal-mine indicator,” he said. “If we lose the mussels, who knows what else we’ve lost from the natural system.”
The report, scheduled for release Aug. 1, could have consequences in a long-running feud among Alabama, Georgia and Florida over regional water use.
Florida has asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta to overturn a lower court judge who refused last year to order the release of more water from Georgia reservoirs into the Apalachicola River to protect the gulf sturgeon, the fat threeridge mussel and the purple bankclimber mussel. The appellate panel has delayed the case until Imm’s team completes its work.
“Because new information has come to light and the agencies are engaged in further administrative action, this litigation is likely to be affected,” said Parker Thompson, an attorney for Florida, in a court filing requesting the delay. He declined to comment further.
Georgia attorney Todd Silliman said he could not comment in detail until federal scientists file their report.
“We understand why they’re undertaking this additional consultation and we’ll just have to see what the results of it are,” he said.
When scientists conducted the last study, a severe drought had starved the river of water. Mussels feed at the river’s surface and have some ability to follow changing waterlines. The ongoing study will examine the mortality rate of mussels, their ability to move with river’s surface and how quickly they die when exposed to air.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers uses research from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide how much water should be released from upstream reservoirs into the Apalachicola River, which flows down the Florida Panhandle. The headwaters of the Apalachicola are a dam-regulated reservoir fed by the Chattahoochee River, which flows along the Georgia and Alabama border, and the Flint River.
State leaders have fought for years over water usage. Alabama and Florida accuse metro Atlanta of using so much water upstream that it leaves too little for those downstream.
In 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that metro Atlanta had little right to withdraw water from Lake Lanier on the Chattahoochee River, the main water source for roughly 3 million people. Magnuson said he will severely restrict the amount of water that Atlanta can use starting in 2012 unless political leaders in the three feuding states strike an agreement.
Georgia authorities have appealed that ruling while pursuing negotiations with Alabama and Florida.
In a related decision, Magnuson rejected a request from Florida seeking the release of water into the Apalachicola River to protect downstream wildlife, including the fat three-ridge mussel. The judge said Florida did not prove that federal officials ignored evidence in deciding how much water should be released from Georgia reservoirs to support downstream wildlife.