A couple of colonels from the Army Corps of Engineers tonged for oysters Monday, ate them fresh on the boat and later at an evening reception, and then talked as best they could about the key question at hand:

How can we prevent the Apalachicola estuary from becoming the late, great bay?

Monday afternoon’s trip, sponsored by the Apalachicola Riverkeeper and the Tri-Rivers Water Way Development Association, brought Cols. Donald “Ed” Jackson and Steven Roemhildt, commanders of the Corps’ South Atlantic and Mobile districts respectively, out on the water to see first-hand the challenges facing oystermen.

With Franklin County Seafood Workers Association (FCSWA) leadership Devin Barber, Chris Millender and Ricky Banks manning the wheelhouses of the three watercraft in the flotilla, FCSWA President Shannon Hartsfield offered a tonging lesson to Jackson, who seemed a natural at it.

A former chief of staff of Army forces in South Korea, Jackson has been on the job just three months with the Corps, and made Apalachicola Bay his first stop on a fact-finding trip upstream.

“It’s the opposite of a post hole digger,” Hartsfield advised, as Jackson got the hang of handling the enormous tongs, raking the bottom and then lifting to the culling board a small pile of oysters.

“We used to get 50-60 oysters off two tong licks,” said Hartsfield, as he picked through the pile, separating the empty or undersized shells from the few that were good.

 “That there was about seven- eight tong licks,” he told the colonel. “This half of board should have a pile like that, to be able to make a living.”

Hartsfield said that over the past seven to 10 years, an oysterman’s daily catch has gone from 20, down to 15 or 16 bags per day, to this year “barely catching three bags.”

Even with local dealers paying as much as $30 a bag, the economic reality can be a tough one, a subject Hartsfield provided the colonel some insight on.

“These tongs right there you’re standing over, that’s 350 bucks right there,” he said. “You go through a pair of tongs, if you’re working ‘em regular, six-seven months.

“You get a year out of the heads but you don’t get much out of (the rest),”Hartsfield said. “They’re wood, they don’t last very long.”

After collecting the good-sized oysters Jackson tonged, Hartsfield shucked them on the boat, and both Jackson and Herschel Vinyard, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, enjoyed a few. Also on the lead boat were the Riverkeeper’s Don Ashley, and Jon Steverson, executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District.

On the second boat, Roemhildt’s party included Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. A third boat carried Leslie Palmer, director of the division of aquaculture, and other officials from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Back at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR), at a status briefing featuring presentations by scientific experts on the bay, the colonels thanked the oystermen for their hospitality.

“This was great opportunity today to get out on the water with the folks who work there,” said Jackson. “I understand the challenges that you have.”

Ashley made clear from the outset of the briefing the stakes facing the Corps.

“The Apalachicola is a very thirsty river and the Apalachicola Bay is dying of thirst,” he said. “This is not new, it’s a process taking place over the last two decades, but the drought may have magnified the effect of the lack of freshwater of these systems.

“Working waterfront communities are just as endangered as many other species we try to protect,” he said. “If we move from crisis to collapse, it will be a sad day. We would have lost a national treasure.”

In his opening presentation on the flow needs of the river and floodplain, Ted Hoehn, an FWC biologist, stressed that seasonal variation in freshwater flows is needed to keep these waters healthy and productive.

“Seasonal floodplain inundation is essential for fish access for feeding, spawning, and nursery habitats, as well as nutrient transport to the bay,” he said. “River flows moderate bay salinity and provide nutrients for the bay’s food web that are essential for oyster survival and growth.”

He pointed to studies documenting the effect on channel erosion and habitat loss, not only on oysters but on sport fish and wetland forest, including tupelo trees, as a result of drops in the flows from Woodruff Dam. “The river bed has gone down anywhere from 2 to 5 feet of stage decline,” Hoehn said.

“We’re not getting recruitment of these trees,” he said. “We are losing the forest. Reduced flows from upstream have made the problem much worse.”

Hoehn said that when flows drop below 10,000 cubic feet per second, dissolved oxygen goes to zero and there is a loss of habitat, as shown in studies of largemouth and striped bass and other fish species..

“Operations have had an effect on our sport fish,” he said. “It doesn’t take much to essentially dry out a bed. An hour and they’re gone.”

The biologist’s conclusion was that extreme low river flows in the summertime, once very rare, are now common, as lake levels in federal reservoirs have risen. “The reservoirs and the river flow are out of balance and we’ve got to find that balance,” Hoehn said.

Lee Edmiston, ANERR’s manager, talked of Florida’s investment in its waters, pointing out that the state has spent more than $170 million buying property along the river and bay, with more than a half-million acres of watershed bought by state and federal interests.

“This system has every designation known to man,” he said.

The commercial fishery, in 2007, produced $134 million in economic output, plus $71 million in value added benefits, Edmiston said. “We grow an oyster faster than anywhere else in the country,” he said. “The oyster industry supplies $30 million in economic benefits annually. It’s the lifeblood of the economy.”

He said seasonal variation in river flows are essential for a healthy river and bay, in terms of determining species’ distribution and density, influencing predators, encouraging spawning and controlling disease.

“If you lose the estuaries, you’re going to lose most of the offshore species,” Edmiston said.

Felicia Coleman, who directs the Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory, linked the coastal watershed to the dynamics of flows through the Gulf of Mexico. She said several factors, including flows of fertilizer residue down the Mississippi River, have contributed to the problems that beset the bay.

“We’ve lost so much wetlands, we’re not retaining any of the sediment,” she said.

Coleman said the overall picture must be considered when considering remediation of problems. “The benefits extend beyond the boundaries of the bay, we have to think much further than that,” she said. “The river doesn’t know those boundaries, neither does the plume, neither does the life system of these animals.”

Chad Taylor, with the Riparian County Stakeholder Coalition, and Bill McCartney, with the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Stakeholders (ACFS), outlined the work of their respective groups. McCartney said the ACFS, a private, not-for-profit collation of water users up and down the entire system, has raised $1.2 million to do private studies, to be completed by Dec. 2013.

“We hope that when this planning program is finished, the Corps and the three states will seriously consider some of he recommendations,” he said. “We’re really trying to make a difference and provide state and federal government some alternatives.”

While the Corps is currently pursuing public comments on changes to its water control manual, the document governing how much water is released down the river, it is unclear how long it may take to effect any changes.

The scoping process for the ACF River Basin has been reopened until Dec. 11 to account for a June 28, 2011 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit which concluded that water supply is an authorized purpose for Lake Lanier.

Vinyard, who did not address the gathering, said Florida had appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but was rebuffed. Still, he said, he remained optimistic.

“Gov. Scott is not a fan of litigation,” he said. “I think it’s important to work with our colleagues in Georgia. There are ongoing talks; it’s important to establish a relationship.

“If there is a silver lining, this crisis has brought attention to this region,” said Vinyard.

In their remarks, both Jackson and Roemhildt cautioned that the Corps had limited latitude to affect changes to river flow, in the absence of a clear directive from Congress or the courts.

“I was out there two years ago, and just in two years I have seen a difference in the health of the bay,” said Roemhildt. “No one entity that can resolve this, it’s about a way of life. How do we come together and collaborate and create the best environment out there for everyone?

“We have a playbook that’s associated with drought conditions,” he said. “Nobody likes that, everybody thinks we’re not meeting their demands. We’re trying to get the minimal amount of requirements for everybody.

“We don’t make these things on the fly,” said Roemhildt. “We operate under authorities, we operate under regulations, it’s all very transparent. Right now there’s  very little we can do on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. What we’re looking for is a tropical depression, that’s the only way we’re going to see higher flows in the near term.

“I would encourage the three state governors to come to some sort of agreement that gives us an environment to operate free of litigation,” he said. “”We’re  soldiers, we follow directions very, very well. We don’t make that box, Congress defines that box. We have very little leeway in terms of how to operate that.”

Ashley closed by calling the situation “a  predictable tragedy. If this system reaches the tipping point, if we go from crisis to collapse, the impact is going to be irreversible.

“We have a chance to reverse it,” he said. “This system need a freshwater transfusion as fast as possible.”