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Crippled Apalachicola River leaves wetland forests in peril, famous oysters extinct

Part II of the Orlando Sentinel series looks at a North Florida river in decline.
Georgia Ackerman, director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper group, ventures into the river’s final section near Apalachicola Bay. [Kevin Spear | Orlando Sentinel]
Georgia Ackerman, director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper group, ventures into the river’s final section near Apalachicola Bay. [Kevin Spear | Orlando Sentinel] [ Orlando Sentinel ]
Published Dec. 29, 2020

The Apalachicola River descends 106 miles across the Panhandle to the Gulf of Mexico as the creator and caretaker of Florida’s largest forested floodplain, sandbar beaches, breezy bluffs, coastal marsh and a fertile relationship with Apalachicola Bay.

Tan, old but fast for a Florida river, the “Apalach” was a waterway for indigenous tribes, carried barges until late into the last century and lures kayakers today. It is the state’s largest river by volume and a United Nations biosphere reserve.

The river hosts giant mussels and ancient sturgeon, embodies mazes of incoming tributaries and outgoing distributaries, and ends by nourishing a bay that brought Florida fame for its oysters.

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But the Apalach and its greater ecosystem are dying of thirst and starving to death.

“There is clearly a fix,” said Georgia Ackerman, director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper group. “It should have been done long ago.”

Jim Woodruff Dam seen here is the last in an array of dams farther north along the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, which meet at the Florida-Georgia state line near the city of Chattahoochee. This scene was encountered during a tour of the river with Georgia Ackerman, director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper group. [Kevin Spear | Orlando Sentinel]
Jim Woodruff Dam seen here is the last in an array of dams farther north along the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, which meet at the Florida-Georgia state line near the city of Chattahoochee. This scene was encountered during a tour of the river with Georgia Ackerman, director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper group. [Kevin Spear | Orlando Sentinel] [ Orlando Sentinel ]

This year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission closed Apalachicola Bay for oyster harvesting and on Dec. 16 is expected to approve locking down the closure for five years, meant to give the shellfish a chance at a comeback – even though no one can say for sure why they’re gone.

The move might have been treasonous by North Florida norms and economic hardships. But the “oyster capital of the world” was dead already and not resuscitating for reasons yet to be confirmed.

The collapse began nearly a decade ago with drought that left bay water lethally salty. Oystermen continued to harvest more than the bay could sustain. Resentment toward Georgia and Alabama turned more venomous, with the two states being blamed for inflicting artificial drought by extracting too much river water for farming, industry and cities.

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STORIES IN THIS SERIES

Time is running out to save three Florida waterways threatened by climate change: the Apalachicola River, the Ocklawaha River and Shark River Slough

PART 1: Apalachicola, Ocklawaha, Shark River Slough: Florida’s magnificent, damaged waters at the brink of new assaults from changing climate

PART 2: Apalachicola River: Hope wanes as state’s largest river succumbs to weakening current, dredging damage and imperiled forest

PART 3: Ocklawaha River: Reservoir from government blunder 50 years ago blocks free flow of water and wildife from Silver Springs to St. Johns River

PART 4: Shark River Slough: Main path of water into suffering Everglades park regaining potency, new life with bridges

PART 5: Apalachicola, Ocklawaha, Shark River Slough: Contested waters, different foes, varied outlooks as time runs short

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It’s possible, too, scientists say, that climate change had crept in, afflicting the bay’s ecosystem with hotter weather and disrupted rainfall.

But the decline and death of the Apalach is far more complex.

“It’s an oversimplification,” Ackerman said. The fuller explanation, she said, ties also to the dismantlement of the river channel, the severing of its adjoining wetlands and the distress of its floodplain forests.

Ackerman, a former kayaking tour operator, set out on the river this past winter for a regular checkup of its conditions. Her group is part of the international Riverkeeper Alliance of river and bay watchers.

[Orlando Sentinel]
[Orlando Sentinel] [ Orlando Sentinel ]

Also along were Michael Hill, a retired state biologist who focused on Apalachicola fish; his daughter, Heather, a recent Florida State University biology graduate; and Roy Ogles, retired from federal research of the river and as a veteran manager of Florida state parks.

Current tugged their boat away from a dock at the Florida Panhandle town of Chattahoochee, and the Apalachicola came into panoramic view.

Related: What’s next for climate change in Florida Legislature?

It resembles its siblings, the splendorous Suwannee to the east and untamed Choctawhatchee to the west. Each is born in another state and cuts across Florida to the sea.

The Suwannee and “Choc” flow freely. Apalach waters must escape a straitjacket of dams.

Coming into fuller view, the Jim Woodruff Dam, completed in the 1950s at the Florida-George state line, walls off upstream scenery with a concrete face 1,000 feet wide.

That’s where major rivers, the Chattahoochee and Flint, join and become the Apalachicola. It’s the last of dams along the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers that benefit Georgia’s and Alabama’s farmers, power plants, cities and boaters, but dehydrate the ecology – to an extent fiercely contested by the three states – of the Apalachicola River and Bay.

The three states’ three decades of legal war over the three rivers has resolved little.

River conceals its ailments

The Riverkeeper vessel cut away from the dam and motored downstream under a confetti of white pelicans and bald eagles, and between shorelines of heavy tree canopy. The river’s personality is extravagant and beckoning.

Of Florida rivers, the Apalachicola probably was the most populated with indigenous tribes because of game, forage foods and access to the Appalachians, said University of South Florida archaeologist Nancy White. “The Apalach went far into the interior where there were other resources,” she said.

Michael Hill, a retired state fish biologist who focused on the Apalachicola River, his daughter, Heather, a recent Florida State University biology graduate, explore a slough, or channel near the Apalachicola River. [Kevin Spear | Orlando Sentinel]
Michael Hill, a retired state fish biologist who focused on the Apalachicola River, his daughter, Heather, a recent Florida State University biology graduate, explore a slough, or channel near the Apalachicola River. [Kevin Spear | Orlando Sentinel] [ Orlando Sentinel ]

The river’s flamboyance conceals its ailments, but for those on the Riverkeeper boat, the wounds are as vivid a body tattoo.

Even the water is a victim. The dams and their reservoirs strip out sediment, leaving river water “sand starved.” Hungry for mud, current scours into the river bed, relentlessly digging it unnaturally deeper.

A deeper channel holds more water, which lessens the amount that floods outward, as nature intended, into adjoining wetland forests.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took that a large, mechanized step further.

For decades, the agency labored to make the Apalachicola more suitable for shipping. It dredged the river bottom, straightened bends and, to encourage a uniform current, built “training dikes,” or jetties made of rock or timbers extending from shorelines toward the river’s center.

The overall result is that Apalach is strongly encouraged to keep out of the 100,000 acres of adjoining floodplain, an area larger than the city of Tallahassee.

The harm done to the river “just slaps you in the face,” said Ogles, who was driving the Riverkeeper boat. After two decades with Florida’s park service, he worked for 20 years at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Ogles said what strikes him as particularly offensive are the masses of rubble from dredging. The rock and gravel were dumped on wetlands adjoining the Apalach. It was biological murder. The river carries water but the wetlands produce life.

The dredging spoils also were deposited in the critical sloughs, pronounced “slews,” which are wetland channels that carry river water back and forth from deep into the adjoining floodplain.

Under heavy criticism for inflicting harm, the Corps ceased dredging a decade ago and left behind a legacy of buried wetlands, sloughs and gouged-out river bottom.

Beyond the waters’ edge

Stepping from the Riverkeeper boat, Hill, the retired state fish biologist, led a hike to a dry slough. It was impressively shaped, with steep banks and brown earth.

When it fills with floodwaters, Hill said, schools of sunfish, bluegills and largemouth bass will forage and spawn where he was standing.

“I’ve seen fish weighing 20 and 30 pounds jump from the water,” Hill said of swollen sloughs far from the river. “It’s pretty spectacular.”

It’s not just fish that depend on the river flooding into adjoining forests and swamps. Trees do as well. The relationship between trees and flooding is critical for the river’s larger ecosystem.

Retired U.S. Geological Survey scientist Helen Light spent much of her career measuring the declining frequency and volume of Apalachicola flooding.

They correlated that decline with the shriveling of tupelo forests.

The floodplain has water tupelos that are straight and provide quality timber and Ogeechee tupelos that are gnarly like goblins and famed for the honey at roadside stands.

The two tupelos provide a major portion of the leaf litter that drops into floodwaters and becomes the base nutrition for the greater food web that powers the Apalachicola River ecosystem.

To thrive, tupelo saplings require a specific depth of floodwater at specific times, Light said.

“The duration of time the seedlings must endure without water during peak growing season is now one or two months longer than it used to be,” Light said.

The density of trees has declined dramatically since the 1970s. The loss of millions of trees has brought an acceleration of assaults.

A thinning tupelo canopy admits more sunlight, which dries out wetland soils and encourages an invasion of ground plants that prevent tupelo seedlings from sprouting.

“The real problem is the lack of flow in the summers,” Light said of declining volumes in the Apalach. “We now have what people who I have worked with for decades call ‘flatline’ summers.”

The popular explanation for the Apalachicola’s collapse has been about the dams, the theft of water by neighboring states and the resulting decimation of oysters in a lethally salty bay.

Missing from the narrative, Ackerman said, are what the dams and the Corps of Engineers have done to the floodplain. The tupelo forests are dying of thirst and, with less of the leaf litter they provide, the larger ecosystem is starving for the nourishment prescribed by nature.

The Apalach’s forested floodplain in distress is like watching the late-stage deterioration of a suffering patient, Ackerman said.

A death blow may come soon from the Supreme Court’s review of a long-running lawsuit that has played out badly for Florida’s interests.

But the river’s champions, including Ackerman, are not standing down. They’ve taken up small-scale, hand-to-hand battles to reverse the Corps of Engineers maltreatment of the river.

“I believe the Apalachicola River is still recoverable,” Ackerman said. It’s an optimism she’s supposed to share as the head of a group dedicated to the river. “But you hear scientists referring to it as dying.”

Contact Kevin Spear at kspear@orlandosentinel.com

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.