Forty years ago in 1977 the Times ran a special report on the Endangered Apalachicola River. In 2016 the environmental advocacy group American Rivers declared the Apalachicola River System to be the most endangered in the US. When you forget history you will be forced to repeat it. Read on.
Special Report: Endangered Apalachicola River
The Florida Conservation Foundation Inc. is a highly active group dedicated to preserving Florida. One of its services is the ENFO Florida Report which is published nine to 12 times a year and contains highly researched summaries of some of Florida’s major environmental problems. A recent issue dealt with the Apalachicola River and America’s Pork Barrel Soldiers - The Army Corps of Engineers. The Times, sharing the beliefs and goals of the Foundation, is reprinting the report in full hopes that the people of Apalachicola and Franklin County will join the fight to preserve Our River, Our Bay and Our Way of Life.
Corps of Engineers – Pork Barrel Soldiers On Attack
America’s pork barrel soldiers – the US Army Corps of Engineers - have opened a new front in Florida’s never-ending environmental war. This time they are marching to a tune played by special interests in Georgia and Alabama and their target is the Apalachicola River.
It is Florida’s largest and one of the last remaining unpolluted river systems in the nation. The Apalachicola drainage system is as biologically distinctive as the Everglades and is one of the most productive in North America.
The first step in the campaign is the damming, dredging and diking of the Apalachicola River. The project will not only destroy the river with its freshwater fisheries and wildlife, it will also destroy a multi-million dollar marine fishery that depends on fluctuating, unpolluted river water flowing into the Apalachicola Bay. The stated purpose of the project is to make the river “safer” for barge traffic. The ultimate goal of its proponents however (according to Alabama Development Director R. C. Bamberg) is to convert the 19,500 square mile drainage system into the “Ruhr Valley” of America.
It seems incredible that, at a time when the nation is crying out against excessive government spending, the Corps and its political henchmen are proposing a boondoggle for the benefit of a handful of private interests.
It is even more incredible that the Corps has apparently learned nothing from the past experience in Florida. Its water manipulation policy for the Everglades became a national disgrace. Channelizing of the Kissimmee River has proved so disastrous the state is studying methods of restoring it. The infamous Cross Florida Barge Canal which created a national scandal was stopped in midconstruction and the beautiful Oklawaha River may yet be saved.
It may be significant that the battle of Apalachicola is being conducted from the Mobile, Alabama offices of the Corps of Engineers – not the Jacksonville office in Florida. The “benefits” of the proposed project will accrue to northern industrial interests but Florida will make all of the sacrifices. Florida does not intend to capitulate without a fight. The entire state is mobilizing its resources for the coming battle.
The Apalachicola… North Florida Everglades
The headwaters of the Apalachicola River originate in the mountains of the Southern Apalachians where tributaries from the mountainous drainage systems converge to form the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers. These flow through Georgia and Alabama and the confluence near the city of Chattahoochee on the Florida-Georgia border is the beginning of the Apalachicola River.
It is Florida’s largest and most diversified river and the only one with its headwaters in the Appalachian Mountains. In the upper portion of its 107-mile length it plunges through narrow canyons and deep ravines of the Northern Highlands. The fast-flowing water courses beneath precipitous 200-foot- high bluffs, wanders in and out of spectacular water-filled caves, twists and turns around sharp bends and slips quietly past deep forest-bordered pools.
Below the village of Bristol the river spreads out to meander slowly through broad swamps, marshes and lagoons in the Gulf Coastal Lowlands. Near the town of Wewahitchka it is joined by the magnificent Chipola River which drains the Mariana Lowlands. Her ancient natural levees formed by the Apalachicola have dammed the Chipola to form Dead Lake.
From Dead Lake the great river wanders through coastal formations that once bordered an ancient sea. It drifts slowly through the floodplain of relic barrier islands and sand spits that were formed 300 to 500 thousand years ago and over sediment deposits that range from 45 to 80 feet deep.
It enters the Gulf of Mexico at Apalachicola Bay, the last unspoiled and unpolluted estuary in Florida. The river system extends throughout the huge shallow bay, past barrier islands such as Cape San Blas, St. Vincent Island, St. George Island and Dog Island and influences the northeastern Gulf of Mexico as far as 160 miles south.
The entire Apalachicola Drainage system includes an area of more than 19,500 square miles and extends all the way to the Blue Ridge. Although the Apalachicola has the greatest flow rate of any Florida river with an average of 23,000 to 24,000 cubic feet per second (The average flow rate in 2017 is 16,600 cfps), this flow fluctuates widely with the seasons. High flows sometimes exceed 140,000 cfps (six times the annual average) and low flow rates fluctuate almost as widely.
The result is alternating wet and dry cycles during which the river overflows its banks to inundate vast floodplains of forest, swamp and marsh; then slowly recedes, carrying vital nutrients which are flushed down the river into Apalachicola Bay.
The river is the dominant feature of the drainage area and millions of evolutionary processes have caused fish, wildlife, vegetation and marine life to adjust to and become dependent upon these pulsating fluctuations of water in the Apalachicola flood plain. As in the Florida Everglades, this combination of physiological factors has created a unique area with a diversity of life forms equaled in few places on earth and a number of species flourish that are found no place else in the world.
No other area in Florida has so many species of fresh water fishes. Of the 116 fish species in the drainage, three are restricted to the Apalachicola River while a fourth originated in this system. Anadromous fish (which live in salt water but migrate to fresh water for breeding) include Atlantic sturgeon, Alabama shad, striped bass, Atlantic needlefish and skipjack herring. The Apalachicola is the only river on the Florida Gulf coast to support a substantial striped fishery.
Catadromous fishes (which live in the river and migrate to the sea for breeding) include the American eel, hogchoker and mountain mullet. Ocean fish such as mullet and gulf flounder live in the river. And a highly profitable sport fishery thrives on bass, sunfish, striped bass, white bass, catfish and sturgeon.
The strategic position of the Apalachicola Basin makes it a crossroads of physiographic versatility where various groups of species meet. As Dr. Robert Livingston said, “In terms of endemic, rare, endangered and threatened species, it is as biologically distinctive as the Everglades.”
Harmon Shields, executive director of the Florida Department of Natural Resources stated, “The Apalachicola is a North Florida diamond. Even among the unique, it is incomparable. With all the previous inroads the Apalachicola system still remains one of the most beautiful and biologically productive in the entire state.”
Next week: Apalachicola Bay…Nature’s Seafood Factory in 1977.