For 18 years now, the states of Florida, Georgia and Alabama have wrangled over how water is distributed throughout the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. A reduced amount of freshwater flow is now having a serious effect on the Apalachicola River and Bay, including the world-famous oysters that rely on a fine balance of fresh and salt water to thrive. By Jason Dehart
Treading Water The future of Apalachicola’s river and bay hangs in the balance while politicians grapple over water By Jason Dehart
It’s right out of a classic Western B movie: Bad guy cattle rancher dams up the creek, causing sodbusters downstream to suffer. Enter the laconic Good Guy, who defeats the rancher and restores the creek.
Right now, the Apalachicola River and Bay are still waiting for the Good Guy to prevail. After 18 years – five of which have been taken up in litigation – there is no end in sight to the apprehension that the Apalachicola River and Bay are in dire straits.
“The question is, where is the break-over point? At what point does Apalachicola Bay and the world-class product get lost and we become the next Chesapeake Bay?” asks David McLain, a retired Army colonel and current senior policy director for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, a watchdog advocacy group formed in 1998.
For 18 years now, the states of Florida, Georgia and Alabama have wrangled over how water is distributed throughout the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. About five years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – which manages water flow in the system – started storing up more water in Lake Lanier, which supplies water to the city of Atlanta. To do this, the Corps reduced the amount of water flowing downstream. And the reduced amount of freshwater flow (5,000 cubic feet per second versus 20,000 cubic feet per second) is having a serious effect on the Apalachicola River and Bay, including the world-famous oysters that rely on a fine balance of fresh and salt water to thrive.
“The oysters are the canary in the mine shaft,” McLain says.
But after years of arguing in court that the reduced flows are a threat to the Apalachicola’s endangered species, and failing to make Atlanta budge on that point, McLain says it’s time to change tactics. Now is the time, he says, to put a more human face on the problem.
“What we’re trying to do now is find a different fulcrum point in the battle,” he says. “We have about 1,100 families who are licensed to work the bay. It’s a way of life that has flourished here for eons. And it’s against the 5 million people of Atlanta that they are pitted.”
But it’s not just Florida oystermen who are affected. Residents in southern Alabama and southern Georgia stand to be affected as well, McLain says. And it basically boils down to a battle between these people and the city of Atlanta’s unchecked growth.
“It’s not a tri-state issue. It’s a four-state issue between Florida, Georgia, Alabama – and Atlanta,” McLain says. “That’s how we’re trying to find a better fulcrum point. The South Georgia and South Alabama people are as concerned about the unlimited growth of Atlanta as we are.”
McLain says that the people of Apalachicola stand to lose the most if the bay system falls victim to excess saltwater intrusion.
“The community that has continued the life of oystering here continues a life that began thousands of years ago with the Indians who settled here,” he says. “They still fish the same way with the tongs and two-man boats. So when we lose the freshwater content, it threatens a way of life that has existed forever.”
Meanwhile, the Riverkeeper group is reaching out to the officers of the Army Corps of Engineers who are responsible for managing the amount of water that flows from Lake Lanier south to the Gulf. Army officials came down to Apalachicola for a tour in July, McLain says.
“We invited them to come over and put a human face on our river and bay,” he says. “We spent time with them showing the impact of the low flows and asked for their assistance in correcting what we have.”
Ordinarily, a little salt water is what makes Apalachicola oysters so tasty. But too much salt water in the bay can invite oyster-eating saltwater creatures to infiltrate the oyster beds. And the lack of fresh water in the system poses another problem. Oysters, being filter feeders, rely on detritus from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint flood plain for food. That’s what they feed on, and McLain says they’re able to grow faster here than anywhere else in the world. But if there isn’t enough fresh water coming down to deliver that organic material, the oysters can basically starve.
Ultimately, McLain says the goal now is to convince the federal government that it is the one that can fix this unequal distribution of water.
“The state has overall water allocation responsibilities, but when it’s an interstate issue like now, in our judgment, where the actions in Atlanta directly and adversely impact us in Florida, that’s an interstate issue that needs to be resolved at the federal level,” he says. “We’ve had 18 years of impasse at the state level. The states have tried unsuccessfully for 18 years to resolve this and are trying to do so in litigation, but there’s been no forward movement at all.”