American Rivers —- which releases a yearly list of the country's 10 most-endangered rivers —- named the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint system its number one for 2016.
The group said "outdated water management and spiraling demand" are the basis for the ranking and called on the governors of the three states to act "swiftly" to form a water-sharing agreement that protects the rivers. It also called for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to overhaul an operating plan for the river system.
"There is enough water in this basin, the science shows it very clearly, for everybody to get what they need and to share a little bit of pain during the drought," said Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers, who is based in Albany, Ga. "This is crazy that we are at this particular crossroads."
The call for tri-state collaboration comes as a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court is pushing Florida and Georgia to settle a lawsuit over the river system. Florida wants to cap Georgia's water use and spur more freshwater flows downstream to the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay in the Panhandle.
Meanwhile, the Corps of Engineers, which runs the dams and reservoirs of the river system, is updating its operations manual for the first time since 1958 —- and an early draft would require lower freshwater flows to the Apalachicola than the current manual. The Corps of Engineers has relied on a 2011 ruling from a federal appeals court that said Georgia has a legal right to water from Lake Lanier, at the top of the system near Atlanta.
Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire said the "most endangered river" ranking underscores the fact that the Supreme Court and the Corps of Engineers will make their final decisions within the year.
"Those two final decisions are going to cast the future for the Apalachicola," he said. "So this is our best —- and maybe our last —- chance to really turn around the management in the basin that will recover the Apalachicola ecosystem."
The so-called "water wars" over the system have been going on since 1990. As metro Atlanta's need for drinking water has exploded, the Apalachicola Bay —- at the south end of the river system —- has suffered a series of droughts and low freshwater flows, decimating the oyster industry that has long been crucial to Franklin County's economy. The bay was declared a federal fishery disaster in 2012, and many oystermen had to leave the area to find work.
"We can't go through another drought like that," said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.
Despite years of court rulings that favored Georgia, Florida sued its northern neighbor in the Supreme Court in 2013.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal created an "office for interagency coordination and management of water resources" and put Jud Turner, also the director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, in charge of it.
Turner brushed off Tuesday's most-endangered designation, along with the "spiraling demand" identified by American Rivers.
"While the ACF Basin provides water for municipal and industrial water supply, threatened and endangered species, hydropower generation, agricultural irrigation and critical aquatic species and floodplain habitats, such competing needs do not make it a 'most endangered' waterway," he said in a statement.
Turner also said Georgia "is actively implementing programs and the Corps has been operating federal dams on the Chattahoochee arm to help meet most, if not all, of these needs."
Deal visited Gov. Rick Scott in June and met with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley in March 2015, but Georgia has strongly opposed efforts by the other two states to alter the management of the system through federal legislation.
Last year, for instance, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Fla., whose district includes the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay, filed a bill that would require the Corps of Engineers to consider freshwater flows to the basin as part of the operating plan. Although it drew bipartisan support from the Florida delegation, the bill has languished.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court's special master, Ralph Lancaster, warned the warring states that if they fail to come to terms, they won't like his.
After decades of legal battles between Florida, Georgia and Alabama over a river system they share, an environmental group on Tuesday warned that the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Basin is "at the breaking point."