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Florida oystermen lose as Atlanta's water needs grow

APALACHICOLA BAY, Fla. - Longtime oysterman Keith Millender sees every shower taken or car washed in metropolitan Atlanta as a small threat to his family, which has harvested seafood from northwest Florida's Apalachicola Bay for generations.

The Apalachicola River - which carries water more than 300 miles from Lake Lanier into the bay, providing the delicate balance of freshwater and saltwater oysters need to thrive - is running dry.

Despite recent rainfalls, Georgia remains in a drought and months of above-average rain are needed to fill its reservoirs. Lanier, which provides most of metro Atlanta's water, is less than 60 percent full.

'They are misusing their water - they are using it for lawns, swimming pools, even in some bathrooms they are flushing twice,' Millender said of Atlanta's growing thirst for water. The metro area's population has doubled since 1980, surpassing 5 million residents.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has said his state's demand for the water comes down to 'man vs. mussels.' Atlanta needs water for its survival, he has said in making a case to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to allow Georgia to take more water from Lanier.

Negotiations between Alabama, Florida and Georgia over controlling the water flow have fallen apart and the states plan to settle their differences in court. But families who have harvested oysters, shrimped and sold seafood for generations along Florida's Forgotten Coast say they cannot wait years for a court battle to play out.

Life on Apalachicola Bay is a sharp contrast to sprawling Atlanta. A two-lane road runs along the bay in front of a string of ramshackle oyster shucking shacks and fresh seafood houses. Many of the businesses are shuttered, their windows boarded up and paint peeling. Workers walk across the street from homes they have occupied for generations to jobs in the shucking shacks or on the oyster boats.

Oystering is a $10 million industry in Florida, with about 1,200 licensed harvesters and 25 processing houses in the Apalachicola area. Approximately 3 million pounds of oyster meat was landed in the state last year, about 10 percent of the national harvest. Texas and Louisiana are bigger oyster producers and could make up the difference if the Florida industry fades.

'But you cannot put a price on the culture, the way of life and the heritage of the industry,' said David Heil, an oyster regulator with the Florida Department of Agriculture.

Millender remembers when more oyster houses were open. The dwindling supply of oysters, coupled with increasing regulation of the industry, has put many out of business.

'It used to be when all this here was oyster houses,' he said pointing up the bay to several boarded-up businesses.

Frank Coulter, 64, grew up on the bay harvesting oysters like his father before him. With the flow of freshwater into the bay restricted, oysters in the deepest sections are perishing, he said.

'They are scarcer than they should be. Your shallow water is where most of your live oysters are, and that really hurts,' he said.

His son, Frank Jr., joins him on the oyster boat each day. But the elder Coulter believes his son's generation will be the last in the oyster business.

'It's a dying business because of population and pollution,' he said.

Before long, Apalachicola Bay will be like Tampa Bay, too polluted to harvest fresh seafood.

'They will close everything down,' he said.

Daniel Evans, 23, is among the younger oystermen working the bay. On a good day, he takes home as much as $200. Oyster prices vary seasonally, but have remained relatively flat year-to-year. They fetch about 50 cents a pound wholesale for oysters in the shell.

But raking the floor of the bay with heavy oyster tongs, hauling up oysters and breaking them apart - culling - is hard labor.

'When you are sitting down culling after tonging and you are rocking in the wind on this V-bottom boat, it will kill you. I've got a good heating pad,' he said.