The Apalachicola River: A Ditch Runs Through It

Iamonia Lake Creek

As I was headed over to Tallahassee for FSU’s first football game of 2012, a couple of things really started bugging me. For starters, who is Murray State? Is it just me or does anybody else think that to call yourself XYZ State, XYZ should be an actual name of a state? I’m good with Michigan State, Arizona State or even Rhode Island State (if it is still a state). But come on, Murray State? Schools like that ought to have to include their state for reference. I think it should be called Murray, Kentucky (near the Tennessee line) State. Oh, and I refuse to even acknowledge the existence of Ball State. (Sorry, David Letterman.)

In my imagination, I was making an impassioned speech to Congress about the need for new laws governing college names (because that’s the sort of thing I do while driving) when we crossed the Apalachicola River on I-10. That’s when my mock outrage turned to real worry mixed with genuine anger.

This is more than a body of water. It’s the foundation for our way of life.

There beneath us stretched a thin, gaunt ribbon of water where the “Big River” once flowed. The river being low isn’t exactly news, but seeing it from that vantage point took me off guard. Tall, bright-green grass is now growing where sandbars should be. That’s a testament not only to how dry the river is, but also how long those sand banks have been exposed.

That’s worrisome to me on a number of levels. Towns like Chattahoochee, Sneads, Blountstown, Bristol, Wewahitchka, Eastpoint and Apalachicola all owe their existence to this river. Formed by the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, the Apalachicola flows to the Gulf from Lake Seminole, where Georgia, Alabama and Florida meet. It’s the lifeblood for countless creeks, sloughs, lakes, swamps and grass flats. And it has been a source of employment, enjoyment and sustenance for people since before recorded history. Now, in the space of one generation, we’re in real danger of losing much of what makes it special.

For several years now, people have been pointing to troubling signs like lower-than-usual water levels lasting longer than ever before. I’ve spoken to people in their 60s, 70s and 80s who say they’ve never seen it this low this long. Those of us who regularly hunt and fish in its tributaries have seen navigable creeks turn into footpaths. Ponds are indistinguishable from the surrounding woods. Cypress trees are struggling to survive, sometimes now hundreds of yards from water.

We’ve had months of ultra-low water and there’s no end in sight.

Meanwhile, Florida, Alabama and Georgia are locked in a three-way battle for their fair share of the water. Georgia wants to feed the ever-growing metropolis that is Atlanta. Alabama wants to make sure there’s enough left to water its crops. And the folks at Lake Seminole don’t want their slice of heaven to go to hell in a hand basket.

All of us have a lot to lose, and I get that. But I wonder if those people understand that what we have south of the Jim Woodruff dam is a river system that can never be rebuilt or replanted. We can’t develop a new tributary like we create a suburban neighborhood. We can’t rotate the “crops” of cypress, tupelo, white oak and hickory trees along its course — much less the fish and oysters in the bay. And we can’t engineer a state-of-the-art swamp somewhere else.

My point is that folks to our north may have a lot at stake here, but we’re “all in.”  Less water for them is inconvenient; for the Apalachicola River, it’s catastrophic.

I’ll be writing more about this issue in the days ahead. My goal is to speak with some people who have good ideas about how to protect the Apalachicola and preserve the way of life it affords us. I’m hoping that the more people become engaged and concerned, the more support we’ll have for taking real steps to save it. So look for more posts on this topic in the future.

Please comment if you have ideas or suggestions for what we need to do, or to describe your own memories of how the river used to be. I’d love to hear from you.

But for right now, I’m going to try to take my mind off the river and think about something less bothersome. Like FSU football.

Let’s see, this week they’re playing . . . Savannah, Georgia, (just above Jacksonville) State.






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