Water (chemical formula: H2O) is a transparent fluid which forms the world's streams, lakes, oceans and rain, and is the major constituent of the fluids of organisms.
A Fact is something that has really occurred or is actually the case.
As part of CCA Florida’s continued efforts to provide valuable information to on behalf its membership, CCA has combined these two words to provide recreational anglers with well-founded water facts that we will be calling and referring to now and into the future as WACTS. As part of this effort, we will be providing information to our membership on water issues in specific regions of the state. The topic of this edition is:
The Apalachicola River.
Florida’s coastal estuaries are impacted in varying degrees from human population growth and coastal development impacts which compromise estuarine water quality and fisheries sustainability. In Florida’s Panhandle, Apalachicola Bay has been threatened by man’s decades-long alterations of water flows in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin, which is a massive 21,000 square mile area found in three states, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. The region has also suffered from inadequate local municipal storm water drainage systems.
At over 100 miles long, the Apalachicola River is Florida’s largest river in flow magnitude and originates at the Florida-Georgia state line near the town of Chattahoochee, Florida. It is approximately at this point where the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers merge to form the Apalachicola. In flow volume, it is the fifth largest river feeding the Gulf of Mexico, and the 21st largest in the country. The river gets its name from Native American peoples who lived along its banks up until the middle part of the 19th Century. The river basin in Florida is a story in contrasts and bio-diversity, and includes various flat wood and pine forests as well as swampy wetlands. Elevations throughout the entire ACF watershed in the three states vary from sea level to almost 4,500 feet in northeast Georgia in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Water flows throughout the basin have been altered dramatically by dams, flood control structures, and hydroelectric facilities over the past century. Apalachicola Bay, East Bay, St. George Sound, and St. Vincent Sound all are part of the estuary basin of the Apalachicola River. Other tributaries to the basin include the Chipola River, the New River, and the Carrabelle River.
According to studies prepared by the Florida Storm Water Association, US Environmental Protection Agency, Florida State University, the American Society of Civil Engineers and others, the state of Florida is faced with approximately $50 billion in water resource management needs by 2035. Water resource discussions cannot take place without understanding statewide demand for funding, and Florida’s legislature must continue to make water resources its highest priority. There is a preponderance of evidence Florida needs to take necessary actions to secure the entire state’s future water supplies, not only for human needs and consumption, but also for a complex set of environmental demands.
A great example of this dynamic is the extensive resources necessary to secure adequate water supplies to protect our coastal fisheries in Apalachicola Bay. Complicating any possible solutions is a multi-decade lawsuit among Florida, Georgia, and Alabama over water consumption and water rights throughout the ACF system. At the center of the water wars among the three states is the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for managing the water in the ACF system. Another critical element at play is the Endangered Species Act (ESA), providing additional challenges to water managers’ mission in their oversight of an already complex system. The Corps has established operational guidelines and rules which govern water releases, timing, and quantities from various federal dams throughout the watershed and, in doing so, according to Florida’s legal argument, has put Apalachicola Bay at risk.
As is true throughout other watersheds and estuary systems, the water management in the ACF basin is incredibly complex. In the case of the ACF, the Corps operates several action zones in its attempts to manage water demands in the three states. Just some of the challenges facing the Corps include droughts, seasonal rainfall and variables, modified hydroelectric schedules, navigation, flood control, and, of course, human water supply needs by millions of inhabitants. In the case of the latter, Lake Lanier in Georgia provides the lion’s share of water demands of the greater Atlanta metropolitan area, which alone are over 375 million gallons per day (Georgia’s water demands are expected to double over the next 25 years). In reality, the lake is a 60 square mile reservoir which was created in the 1950’s when the Chattahoochee River was dammed for downstream flood control and for water supply demands of the greater Atlanta area, which is downstream from the lake. The re-design of the system and its current management have had profound effects on fish and wildlife.
At the terminal point of this complex over-engineered system is Apalachicola Bay. The Bay supports one of Florida’s largest oyster fisheries as well as over 130 fresh and salt water fish species. The area typically provides approximately 90% of Florida’s commercial oyster harvest, as well as an abundance of blue crabs and shrimp. According to a recent study by Georgia Tech, the Apalachicola River normally provides up to 90% of the fresh water the system requires. Data suggests oyster health is directly related to appropriate salinity levels in the Bay. Further, oyster health is proven to provide a natural filtration system as well as vital fin fish and shellfish habitat. The ACF system has been studied extensively and most conclusions support increased fresh water flows to Apalachicola Bay. Despite several protective state designations, Apalachicola Bay is still at risk of collapse.
Like some other water issues, the problems of the Apalachicola River will be resolved in the courts, and its outcome is still uncertain. The long standing “Water Wars” being waged by Florida, Georgia, and Alabama are primarily over who owns and controls the water in the basin. The court case is focusing on a severe drought in 2011 - 2012, during which time Georgia held back water in the ACF system for its use, and at the expense of Florida’s oyster industry. It is anticipated - and strongly preferred - the Supreme Court will come up with some type of equitable apportionment of water use throughout the system.
CCA Florida’s legal team has reviewed certain aspects of the current case (there were previously other legal actions pursued), which was filed in the U.S. Supreme Court, and not through the normal appeals process. This is primarily because it involves three different states, although Alabama has largely sided with Florida in the case. The trial involves a Special Master of the court (a federal judge appointed by the court to hear the case), which ended just recently on December 1, 2016, and was based in Portland, Maine in an effort to avoid conflicts of interest and to keep the case from being ensnarled in a media circus. The Special Master’s report is due in the immediate future, and his recommendation will go to the U.S. Supreme Court for the final ruling. Judge Ralph Lancaster, the Court’s Special Master, continues to urge the states to settle the case through mediation, and has given them until January 24 to come to terms. Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and other advocacy groups have filed amicus briefs in the case.
Priorities for the Apalachicola River and for Apalachicola Bay:
As we consider issues of water management throughout Florida, whether they be in the Panhandle, South Florida, or Northeast Florida, it is important for CCA members to be aware parallel dynamics and challenges exist throughout the state. All of Florida’s riverine and estuary systems are incredibly complex, and each of them face similar high demands from a growing number of residents and businesses, all of whom must be cognizant of the delicate balance necessary for a healthy environment for fish and wildlife. In just about every case, the natural system has been dramatically altered by man over decades, so returning them back to their original state is virtually impossible. CCA members should pay particular attention to the dynamics and complications created by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) which effects how the Army Corps of Engineers and state water managers oversee every system. Another reality is the fact that any particular area will receive, on average over time, the same amounts of historic rainfall that feed the system. At the same time, demands on water from rainfall have risen dramatically with growing populations, whether they be in greater Atlanta in the ACF system, for example, in the I-4 Corridor in Central Florida, or in South Florida, and it is rare to find a naturally flowing system.
ACF system map courtesy of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper