Four months into his command of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mobile District, Col. James A. DeLapp preached a message of collaboration on his inaugural visit to Apalachicola Oct. 14.
At a luncheon jointly hosted by the city and county at the Owl Café, DeLapp said the Corps is tasked with balancing a number of different authorized uses of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river systems that it oversees, including hydroelectric dams, recreation, economic development, and flood control.
“Collaboration is the key,” he said. “The Corps tries to meet all of those purposes.
“Everyone has their own unique interests, some are shared and some are divergent,” DeLapp stressed, in his opening remarks, following a luncheon that prominently featured raw oysters and fresh shrimp. “The challenge the Corps has as the executor is to take all the interests together and to meet all of those.
“The Corps and I are not alone, we don’t make those decisions unilaterally although the district commander has quite a bit of authority,” he said. “We can’t do things we aren’t authorized or provided funding to do. If we could it would probably be a much different day but you’d have things changing every two or three years.
“You may not always agree with the end solution, but we’re trying to meet all of those purposes,” he said.
Following the buffet lunch, the invited guests heard from several introductory speakers, including County Commissioner Smokey Parrish and Franklin County Seafood Workers Association President Shannon Hartsfield, who appealed to the new district commander to consider the needs of the Apalachicola Bay area.
Parrish spoke passionately about the river’s world-class status as a vibrant estuary, and urged the new Corps commander, who doubles as the district engineer, to consider this when flow regimens are established.
“It’s our culture, it’s our heritage, it’s our way of life, and we want to continue that,” said Parrish. “Look around, there’s no 10-story condominiums, there’s no theme parks.”
He stressed the critical role oysters have in processing the nutrients that come down the river, and keeping the bay healthy.
“Without that we lose our ecosystem, we lose our biosphere, we lose out environment,” he said. “People here want their environment protected. They want to share their seafood with all the people who come here.”
Parrish cautioned the colonel that a situation such as Lake Okeechobee, which is now costing millions of dollars to clean up, must be avoided for Apalachicola Bay.
In his remarks, Hartsfield spoke of how more and more seafood workers are turning to other occupations because of the difficulties in making a living on the water. Unfortunately, a scheduled trip to the bay had to be scratched due to the colonel’s timing on his trip down the river.
“Cat Point is the only harvestable area in this bay, and we’re talking about a drop in a hat in this bay,” said Hartsfield, noting that he had just reviewed the latest details of the Corps’ water control manual.
“I didn’t see anything that’s going to give us a future in our harvestable areas,” he said. “It’s a trend we’ve been seeing year after year and it’s getting worse and worse. We’re in reality, and guys are just now realizing it (the seafood industry) may not return.
“Oystermen for generations have focused on the bay. My son would have been fifth generation,” said Hartsfield. “It’s scary, scary times and I don’t know what kind of future Apalachicola is going to hold for us.
“Everybody’s making changes but there’s only so much of change this seafood industry can change to,” he said. “I’m hoping in the future some compromises can start happening. We need to figure out a way to give you some other options that can be done.”
Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson began the program by presenting DeLapp with a key to the city. Later, the University of Florida’s Andy Kane, who heads up the local SMAART task force on the seafood industry, gave three oyster shells to DeLapp, with holes in them that indicated where they had been drilled through by tiny organisms that have proliferated as saltwater levels have grown and freshwater flows have diminished.
Also speaking were Catherine T. Phillips, PhD, head of the regional office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who spoke about the need to preserve the estuary’s rich population of marine life, and Dan Tonsmeiere, with the Apalachicola Riverkeepers, who urged a series of specific measures be taken on behalf of the area’s concerns.
In his remarks, DeLapp, a Chicago native, said that he has learned in his various assignments, ranging from Phoenix, Arizona and the Pacific Northwest to work on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Baghdad Iraq, that “every region of the country has its own unique challenges.
“Phoenix looks as every bit of water as liquid gold to them,” he said. “No one understands the value of water more than those who have to manage that system to make sure they have every drop of water. In the Pacific Northwest they appear to be flush with water, there’s not a big issue of releasing it.
“This ecosystem has its own unique challenges. I think collectively we can all help to make it the very best we can within the constraints we face,” said DeLapp.
He said his trip along the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint rivers has enabled him “to really gain an appreciation for the rivers, as well as the industries and the communities that rely on those rivers.”
He said dams and hydroelectric projects along the rivers have enabled economic growth and flood control. “To leverage those natural resources we have to allow economy to grow,” said DeLapp. “But there’s no doubt there’s consequences to that growth. We’ve learned a lot of hard lessons as a country and some we’re trying to mitigate and collectively we work together to do that.
“We don’t have the silver bullet. We’d like to leverage all the science, to make good sound decisions on what we need to do to move forward.”
He also noted the funding challenges faced by the Corps. “What we do is not cheap, and today more so than ever our nation’s really struggling to continue to fund these vital resources they’ve built over the years,” said DeLapp. “We don’t have the funding and resources to do it all on our own any more. We must rely on universities.”
He said he has not yet visited Lake Lanier. “with its “big houses and big boats,” but will do so soon. “I want to make sure I saw this part of the river as well,” he said. “What happens downstream is really what’s most important.
“You get a much different view than on a drive, when you come down the river and see the challenges,” DeLapp said. “We saw the depths and some of the snags and some of the things in the way.”
In the question-and-answer period, DeLapp said that “there’s no doubt the greatest challenge for this district is why were here, what everyone likes to refer to as the ‘water wars.’”
He said the issue has moved beyond Mobile District, and now has multiple states involved in an ongoing court battle.
“We all have a great appreciation and understanding of that challenge,” said DeLapp. “There are high stress demands. The last thing we want to do is negatively impact any one or any community.”