Apalachicola Bay Part 2: Climate Change And Collapse

Oct 30, 2015

The decline of the Apalachicola Bay has long been blamed on increased water use upstream—in Georgia. Critics also blame the Army Corps of Engineers for holding water in Lakes Lanier and Seminole—not letting enough run downstream to feed the Apalachicola Bay. But not everyone believes the Bay’s problems are entirely the fault of water management policies.

Apalachicola Riverkeeper, Dan Tonsmiere
Credit Jason Tereska / WFSU News

Florida, Georgia, Alabama and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been at odds about water use for more than 25 years. The Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers feed the Apalachicola, and both are in Georgia. But Tonsmiere says that’s not a reason for that state to have a greater say.  

“Whether it’s a road or river and they cross state boundaries, federal law applies. That’s why we’re in the Supreme Court," he said.

Tonsmiere’s job is to monitor the health of the Apalachicola system and he says Georgia has resisted working with Florida on the water distribution issue. He along with several other local and state officials, and scientists, have been handed subpoena’s in the latest legal challenge. The fights go back decades.

The Beginning

In 1946, Congress authorized two dams along the Chattahoochee: Lake Lanier and Southern Georgia’s Lake Seminole. Back then fishermen warned of problems, but by the 1960’s the region was experiencing an extended wet period, and no issues emerged. Then, in 1981 a drought came. Retired Florida State University Ecologist Livingston says the present collapse of the Bay is not a surprise. The federal government predicted the droughts in the early 80’s.

“Everything we predicted from that written report came true," Livingston said. "We’ve lost the oyster, we’ve lost the fishes, we lost the blue crabs, we lost the shrimp. All of which were the major fisheries of that region.

Livingston says the cause is climate change. While the region has always had periods of drought—a climate shift happened in the 1980’s. That coincided with a rise in water consumption and agricultural use in Georgia. Dams hindered natural flood cycles that are key to getting essential nutrients into the bay for the animals to feed. The droughts got longer, and they were worse, causing the Bay to lose some of its ability to snap back each time.  In 1990 Florida sued Georgia following a three-year drought cycle. But that one was minor compared to the record lows between 1999-2002. 

There’s a rule of thumb that says for each drought it takes three years to see a recovery. Another drought hit in 2006. And the Bay had barely gotten back to a normal level, when in 2010 another disaster struck. The BP Oil spill.

Water flow is key to the health of the Apalachicola Bay. But the flows have declined due to climate change-induced droughts, and increased water use upstream.
Credit Helen Light / USGS.gov

Fear of oil reaching the bay led the state to allow more oyster harvesting. The result was a near depletion of the prized bivalve. Two years later, the worst drought ever struck the bay. The 2012 drought was so bad that in August of 2013, the federal government declared a fishery disaster. For people like Livingston, who fought hard to protect the bay from development, the Bay’s critical condition is heartbreaking to see.

“While we protected it from everything else, we weren’t able to protect it from the climate change that’s occurring right now.”

Army Core of Engineers Pitch A Plan

Nearly 70 years after Congress authorized the dams on the Chattahoochee, the U.S. Army Core of Engineers is attempting to finalize a water use plan for the system. But it’s not being met with enthusiasm. A draft of the plan would keep flows low and allow more water use for Georgia. Florida’s Congressional delegation opposes the plan. North Florida Congresswoman Gwen Graham discussed the issue while visiting the region for a prescribed burn.

“This is just the first step. This is just the draft environmental impact statement. There’s a long process we still have to go through.” 

The Bay is a federal estuary sanctuary, a designation Livingston and others fought for back in the 1970’s. There’s little development or agriculture in the area. Now Livingston sees those efforts at preservation failing, and he says he doesn’t know how much more the Apalachicola Bay can take, before it can no longer recover.