Army Corps' River Plan Draws Stiff Criticism

Nov 13, 2015

Attendees milling around the Army Corps of Engineers' open house.
Credit Nick Evans

The Army Corps of Engineers is developing a water management plan for the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, Flint River system.  But many in north Florida are crying foul, because the plan ignores impacts in Apalachicola Bay.

Apalachicola juts out into the water, a blunt peninsula separating the river delta to the north and the wider bay to the south and east.

“Ok well this is right at the mouth of the Apalachicola River,” Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire explains, “The marsh that you see on the other side of the river there is actually separates us from East Bay which is the primary nursery area of Apalachicola Bay.”

The bay is in trouble—but that’s nothing new.  For decades Florida, Georgia and Alabama have been wrangling over rights to fresh water in the Apalachicola river basin.  Now the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that oversees the system, is drafting a new water management plan, but it leaves the bay out.

“If they are looking at what is going to be impacted by their operations they can’t ignore the bay,” tonsmeire says.  “I mean just logically you can’t separate the two.”

As the rivers travel south, the Chattahoochee and Flint feed into the Apalachicola which then empties into the bay.  But the Corps says its authority ends before that.

“It’s 1945 when they drew up the parameters of the ACF,” Michael Creswell tells locals at a public hearing set up by the Corps.  He works in the agency’s legal office.

“At the time,” Creswell goes on, “Congress determined that where we would stop the federal project for the ACF starting now obviously up at Lanier is 6.7 miles before the bay.”

The hearing is really more of an open house.  There’s a room lined with big posters and a handful of Corps employees to answer questions about the project, but it’s not really set up for officials to hear public comments.

“Well I think this is a very carefully orchestrated presentation with a lot of charts and a lot of information,” Liz Perkins says.  She’s currently considering a move to Apalachicola.  

“I think it also was somewhat organized in that there would not be a public meeting where people could get impassioned by what’s going on here,” Perkins finishes.

Her friend Tom Fugate lives in town.

“They’re drawing an arbitrary line and saying we can’t step beyond this,” Fugate says, “we don’t want to—we’re not allowed to—step beyond this, and fully examine the entire resource that’s presented to us?  I think that’s a simple cop-out.”

Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham is leading a push to extend the Corps’ authority, but she says the agency should already be looking at how its actions will affect the bay in its environmental impact statement, or EIS.

“With my understanding of what an EIS is supposed to contain,” Graham says, “the current EIS is not doing what it’s required to do under law, which is to consider all of the users of the ACF basin, including the Apalachicola bay, and to consider the impact of federal action when it’s in a negative way on the people and economies and the environments surrounding the ACF basin.”

Colonel Jon Chytka, commander for the Corps’ Mobile District, defends the plan arguing the environmental impact statement does consider adverse environmental impacts in the bay, and they’ll be minimal. 

But that consideration doesn’t necessarily extend to the creatures living in the bay.

“So cumulative effects, we do consider it in the draft EIS,” Chytka says.

But on the other hand, “Do we operate for any one non-endangered or threatened species?” Chytka asks rhetorically, “If they’re not endangered or threatened we’re not operating for them.”

For Apalachicola Bay’s flagging oyster populations—the cultural and economic cornerstone of the community—that distinction could be a death sentence.