Apalachicola Riverkeeper and Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF) have filed a petition with Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) to improve the state permit under which the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) may conduct “snagging” operations on the Apalachicola River.

Tonsmeire said the FWF and the Riverkeeper presented the Florida Department of Environmental Protection with a petition, which was held in abeyance three months while conservationists negotiated with the Corps. Failing to reach an agreement FWF and the Riverkeeper requested the petition be presented to the DOAH.

“Limited snagging removes hazards and obstructions in the river channel, and is essential for safe navigation,” said Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire, "We support safe navigation and the removal of obstructions in the channel, but the extensive snagging allowed by the proposed permit will result in significant damage to the river banks and to the floodplain.

“We believe that this damage is unnecessary and avoidable. We have asked for stricter and more specific language in the permit in order to keep the river safe for navigation while avoiding damage to the floodplain and the river,” he said.

“The Riverkeeper fully supports keeping the river safe for both commercial traffic and recreational boats,” Tonsmeire said, "We believe safe navigation on the river is essential. After all, we’re out there in boats, too. We also believe that keeping the river safe and keeping the river healthy must go together. We agree with the Corps that they can do the snagging in ways that will achieve both, but we do not believe that the permit conditions as written will ensure that both goals are met. Past work on the River by the Corps has resulted in harm to the natural system. We stand ready to work with the Corps to ensure things are done correctly this time.

“FWF and the Riverkeeper worked hard with the Corps to find areas of agreement and mutual concern. That process ended with significant areas of disagreement unresolved,” said Tonsmeire, "We all went at it in good faith, but there were areas where we simply couldn't agree. Now, our only option is to pursue our petition for a hearing and to seek modification of the specific conditions under which the work would be carried out."

“FWF and the Riverkeeper have petitioned for a hearing on the issuance of the permit, “ said Preston Robertson of FWF, "We filed the petition because the requested permit is vague about what the Corps could do, when they could do it and where they could do it. It allows them vast discretion to work in ways which could cause unacceptable damage to a greatly-stressed natural system."

The organizations maintain that snagging in the past has caused erosion of the riverbanks and reduced access to the floodplain both for fish and for fishermen.

"Our suggestions for the permit will help avoid destabilizing the banks,” Tonsmeire said. “We ask for a precisely defined and charted 100-foot-wide channel. This channel would provide for safe passage of most commercial barges, as well as recreational boats.”

The Corps has asked for a 10-year permit, which the Riverkeeper and FWF believe to be too long.

"Given the history and the new method of snagging that is being proposed, we think 10 years is too long for the initial permit,” Tonsmeire said. “A two-year permit with rigorous monitoring requirements is much better. This would provide an opportunity to document results of the new ‘snip and drop' approach to snagging prior to issuance of a longer term permit."

Meeting the needs of both the natural system and navigation could create other benefits, as well. The Riverkeeper has worked with commercial shipping interests to determine how a non-dredged, high-flow channel can provide for safe recreational and commercial traffic on the river.

"Returning the higher flows necessary to keep the river floodplain and bay nourished, healthy, and productive will also help to provide for safe navigation. Everybody can gain from this if we do it right,” said Tonsmeire.