Written by Mitch Reid, Alabama Rivers Alliance, and Dan Tonsmeire, Apalachicola Riverkeeper
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is one of the nation’s primary river managers, and its actions have profound effects on the nation’s rivers, coasts, and wetlands. It is also a controversial federal agency. Over the past 200 years, the Corps has dredged more than 15,000 miles of rivers for navigation and impounded more than 300 American rivers for flood control. Many rivers have been acutely impacted by the Corps management decisions. The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River System that runs from north Georgia to the Florida Gulf Coast is a case study in how poor decision making can adversely impact rivers.
Mismanagement of the ACF system has played out over the course of droughts and this year is no exception. While the drought has been severe, the impacts on the Apalachicola River have been disproportionate. While Georgia waited until late in the year to start mandatory water conservation that would provide more flow downstream, the Corps held water back to meet Georgia needs. The Apalachicola River dropped quickly to a drought flat line flow condition that could be maintained until the reservoirs are refilled.
Throughout this, the Corps has been updating its rulebook on how it will operate Lake Lanier and other federal reservoirs on the ACF. Revising this manual to account for modern-day conditions is critically important to the ACF rivers and to the economies and communities that rely on them. This Plan will set a path for decades to come; we need the Corps to do better.
Unfortunately, the Corps’ latest Draft Environmental Impact Statement and Water Control Manual present an inadequate management plan based on old data and science, putting water use in Georgia above other needs along this river system with potential risks of ecological collapse on the Apalachicola portion of the basin. The draft Manual would hold more water upstream for Metro Atlanta than even the state of Georgia says it needs, preventing enough water flowing downstream to support jobs, fish and wildlife, water quality and recreation throughout the Chattahoochee River and the Apalachicola River, Floodplain and Bay.
The USFWS and NOAA have provided comments that suggest that better management is possible, and they have offered to work with the Corps to develop a better plan. NOAA commented that the Corps proposed Draft does not provide adequate flows for Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) in the Gulf and Apalachicola Bay. USFWS reviewed an early Final EIS released to them and repeated its criticism of the Corps’ methodologies, assumptions, and results. They go further to recommend the Corps work with them to develop an alternative to that will better meet the needs of fish and wildlife conservation authorized purpose and still allow them to meet their other congressionally authorized purposes. Water Protection Network, National Wildlife Federation, Florida Wildlife Federation, and Apalachicola Riverkeeper met with Major General Jackson at the Corps Washington DC Headquarters to encourage a decision to delay release of the Final Water Control Manual and EIS until after USFWS and NOAA can assist the Corps in developing a more responsible, and legal, alternative.
We have urged the Corps to go back to the drawing board to develop a plan that mimics the amount, timing and variability of natural flows to the Apalachicola and Chattahoochee Rivers to the maximum extent practicable to protect people and wildlife.
The Corps has scheduled to release its final plan in December, so we will know what their decision is in the next few days.