Apalachicola River abused by selfish politics, bad policy


Published: Sunday, June 23, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 21, 2013 at 10:33 p.m.

Torreya State Park isn't the easiest place to get to. The drive from Tallahassee to that secluded refuge tucked away on the Apalachicola River is a journey of more than an hour down a series of winding, hilly rural roads.

It is well worth the trip.

The steep hills and plunging ravines of Torreya are an ecology nearly unique in Florida. At times it feels as though you are hiking amid the Appalachian range much further north. The sense of isolation and the rugged landscape lends itself to the local mythology that here, indeed, must have been located the original Garden of Eden.

One night, years ago, my son Andrew and I were camped on one of the primitive sites perched high over Florida's largest river. We were lulled to sleep by the distant baying of coyotes, only to be rudely awaken in the middle of the night by a family of deer thrashing its way through a carpet of dry leaves just feet away from our tent.

Nothing unusual about that encounter. But the next thing that work us up — just after dawn — was something really rare, and a sight seldom seen in those parts.

It was the blaring airhorn of a single passing barge that served as our alarm clock. And I felt like alerting the media.

Because it had long been a great irony that while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had spent billions of dollars over the course of decades to dam up and dredge out a barge highway along the length of the Apalachicola River — nearly killing the river in the process — barges hardly ever used this most expensive artificial highway. That we actually happened to encounter one was like sighting a rare species in its most unnatural habitat.

It was not for nothing that "Troubled Waters," a 2000 report done jointly by the National Wildlife Foundation and Taxpayers for Common Sense, listed the channeling of the Apalachicola as one of America's ten most wasteful public works water projects.

"Federal taxpayers spend nearly $20 million each year to maintain the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River System through Florida, Alabama, and Georgia," the report said. "On average, fewer than two barges use the system each day, and less than half of these barges use the Apalachicola. Disposal of dredge material from the river is destroying some of the region's most productive wetlands and shellfish habitat."

The good news is that after years of environmental and political activism, the Corps was finally persuaded to halt the dredging.

The bad news is that of Florida's three great rivers — the other two being the St. Johns and the Suwannee — the Apalachicola continues to be the most abused by acts of selfish politics and bad public policy.

Only these days it's not keeping the river safe for nearly nonexistent barge traffic that's doing the damage. Rather, the river is being "starved" to feed the insatiable thirst of distant, metro Atlanta.

Water that should be flowing south to feed the Apalachicola is instead impounded in Georgia's Lake Lanier reservoir. And a long legal battle by Florida and Alabama to force the release of more water downstream ended this year when the U.S. Supreme Court wouldn't consider a lower court ruling that sanctioned Georgia's water hoarding.

And with devastating consequences. A recent front page story in The New York Times reported on the near collapse of the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay due to an extended drought and upstream water withdrawals.

"In a budding ecological crisis, the oyster population has drastically declined in Apalachicola Bay, one of the country's major estuaries and the cradle of Florida's prized oyster industry," The Times reported. "The fishery's collapse, which began last summer and has stretched into this year, is the most blatant sign yet of the bay's vulnerability in the face of decades of dwindling flow from two rivers originating in Georgia.

"These levels are unprecedented," Dan Tonsmeire, executive director of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, told The Times. "The decline in the entire productivity of the bay is not only an ecological disaster but puts the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen at risk of being lost forever. And it's not just Apalachicola Bay. It affects the entire Gulf Coast."

More than 30 years ago, as a member of the capitol press corps, I accompanied Gov. Bob Graham to the town of Apalachicola as he campaigned to pressure the Florida Legislature into adopting his landmark Save Our Rivers Act. Doing so, Graham argued, was crucial to saving the river, the bay and the estuary. As a result of that legislation, millions of dollars were raised to buy and preserve wetlands and water recharge areas up and down the Apalachicola.

Last year I revisited that town on the bay for the first time in many years, and I was impressed by signs of a community striving mightily to reinvent itself in the face of tough economic times. Restaurants, art galleries, antique shops and other tourist-catering businesses have sprung up in a town that had almost exclusively been devoted to living off the bounties of one of America's most productive estuaries.

But oystering remains Apalachicola's economic lifeblood, and that way of life is in slow, steady decline.

Nothing Florida can do on its own can hope to offset the economic and ecological damage being done by Georgia's withholding of much needed fresh water. Unless Congress acts to impose a more equitable water sharing plan, this great river will continue to be diminished. But lawmakers from Georgia are blocking any such agreement.

Buddy MacKay, former state senator for Gainesville who served as lieutenant governor under Lawton Chiles, may have written the Apalachicola's epitaph when he once observed that it was being "slow talked and litigated to death."

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun.

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