Protecting a National Treasure

Apalachicola Bay; Photo Credit -- Matthew Godwin

By Melissa Samet, National Wildlife Federation
Pictured Above: Apalachicola Bay
Photo Credit: Matthew Godwin

The Apalachicola River and its floodplain form an incredibly rich and diverse system of exceptional ecological importance. The river is home to more than 131 species of fresh and estuarine fish, the largest array in any Florida river. The Apalachicola drainage basin sustains vast numbers of migratory birds and more than 50 species of mammals, including the Florida black bear and the threatened West Indian Manatee. With more than 40 species of amphibians and 80 species of reptiles, the basin supports the highest diversity of amphibians and reptiles in the United States and Canada. The basin is also home to more than 1,300 species of plants, including 103 that are threatened or endangered.

The Apalachicola River is also the lifeblood of the Apalachicola Bay, an estuary of major ecological and economic importance to the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Apalachicola Bay provides 90 percent of Florida’s oysters, and more than 13 percent of the nation’s total oyster production. It is also a major nursery for shrimp, blue crabs, and many species of fish including striped bass, sturgeon, grouper, snapper, red fish, speckled trout, and flounder. The commercial and recreational fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico generate billions of dollars in sales revenue and support tens of thousands of jobs in West Florida. Apalachicola-Bay-©-Leightonphotography-Dreamstime-e1412792666127-1000x377

The Apalachicola’s rich array of species requires sufficient and properly timed freshwater flows to survive and thrive. Such flows are equally critical for maintaining the estimated $5 billion in free services provided by the Apalachicola ecosystem, including clean water, flood protection, and fish and wildlife habitat.

Despite its incredible value, for decades the Army Corps of Engineers has starved the Apalachicola of the freshwater flows it needs to thrive through mismanagement of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River System (ACF). The impacts have been devastating.

More than 4.3 million floodplain trees have been lost along with extensive fish and wildlife habitat. The Apalachicola Bay has suffered critical changes in salinity that caused the collapse of the bay’s rich oyster population and a devastating loss of income for the region. The many tourism, recreation, and other businesses that rely on the system’s bounty have suffered along with these resources.

Florida’s Deputy Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection testified to Congress that “the ecosystem and, indeed, the very way of life for generations of Floridians will be devastated” if flow patterns that mimic the historic flow regime are not restored for the Apalachicola River.

Instead of improving this dire situation, in March the Army Corps issued a new management for the ACF system plan that will keep even more water from reaching the Apalachicola for decades to come. This new plan: increases upstream water withdrawals by 190 percent at one location and 140 percent at a second location; increases the number of times the system is managed under drought operations by 600 percent (drought operations keep more water upstream); triples the amount of time that drought operations remain in effect; and initiates drought operations earlier in the year, when flows are most critical for breeding and reproduction. The adverse impacts will be significant—and potentially catastrophic.

In an effort to block this devastating plan, the National Wildlife Federation, Florida Wildlife Federation, and Apalachicola Riverkeeper, represented by Earthjustice, have sued the Army Corps in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia. The lawsuit focuses on the Army Corps’ blatant failures to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, the mitigation requirements of the Water Resources Development Act, and the ACF system’s fish and wildlife conservation project purpose. The suit asks the Court to order the Army Corps to re-do the water management plan and environmental impact statement used to develop that plan, to comply with these fundamental environmental laws.

Our goal is to ensure that the Army Corps takes all steps possible to restore more natural flows to the ecologically rich Apalachicola ecosystem.

apalachicola-bluffs-david moynahan

Photo Credit: David Moynahan