There’s a new Apalachicola Riverkeeper. Volunteer and fundraiser Georgia Ackerman is taking over for the group’s long-serving leader Dan Tonsmeire. The transition comes as the state is preparing for a Supreme Court case about the future of the river.
Georgia Ackerman has seen a lot of North Florida’s waterways. She led river tours for the kayak ecotourism company she owned. And she organized a campaign to stop the Nestle Corporation from bottling water in the Wacissa River. But she says the experience of paddling the Apalachicola from the state line to the bay was transformational.
“When you’re going at this slower speed on a river in a human-powered boat, you really get this intimate experience with the wildlife and plant life and the flow of the water. So I was hooked. I was completely hooked after that,” Ackerman said.
She’s worked with the Riverkeeper for nearly ten years, attracting volunteers, fundraising, and helping manage the office. Most recently she chaired the organization’s board. Then the group’s longtime leader Dan Tonsmeire started talking about retirement.
“He told the board back at the beginning of the year, 'so I’m thinking I might like to retire'. I think it was a really difficult decision. And quite frankly, with regard to the Apalachicola River, 'when can I exit, stage right or left or whatever, when can I exit when everything’s great and I won’t have anything to worry about...'” Ackerman said.
There’s never an ideal time, Ackerman says. The river was named the country’s most endangered last year. But she says it was an opportunity to build on the work she’s already done with the group. Stepping into the new role, Ackerman sees her main responsibility as being an advocate.
“As I explained to my young adult children recently, I joked, they’re very familiar with the Lorax. The Lorax speaks for the trees, right? Well Riverkeepers speak for the river,” Ackerman said.
But the role also means listening to and relying on the many different groups with a stake in the river: politicians and scientists, but also commercial fishermen, deadhead loggers and oyster tongers.
“In terms of being the representative for the organization it’s really critical to recognize there’s so many different groups that we need to get out and talk to and spend time with and understand. Listening is a really big part of the job. Understanding various perspectives of what’s important for people,” Ackerman said.
She’s starting by listening to Tonsmeire, who is helping guide the transition.
“Because of his long-term involvement and knowledge he’s not somebody who can be replaced so to speak. Knowing that he’ll continue to be a recourse for the organization, he’s going to be wearing the hat ‘Riverkeeper Emeritus’ very soon,” Ackerman said.
The transition comes just weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court debates the future health of the river. Oral arguments are scheduled for January in the decades-long dispute between Florida and Georgia. Florida hopes to convince the court to limit Georgia’s consumption, sending more water south to the struggling Apalachicola Bay. Ackerman is hoping for a resolution to the water wars.
“And it’s really difficult to make progress when there’s litigation going on. It makes people not necessarily share information freely. At the state level sometimes people aren’t talking about things because there’s been concerns about the court case. So at minimum we’ll have definitive answer,” Ackerman said.
Tonsmeire and some board members will head to Washington D.C. for the January 8th oral arguments. It’s not yet clear how the court might rule, or how long their decision could take.