Fundamental changes in water management and flow regulation policies, along with strong water conservation programs throughout the ACF basin are urgently needed for this world-renowned ecosystem to avoid a collapse from which it cannot recover.
River flow is the lifeblood of the swamps, streams, and estuary of the Apalachicola River and Bay ecosystem. Adequate flow is critical in spring and summer when biological activity is at its peak. Mismanagement of river flows, however, has dramatically altered flow patterns, leaving fish, invertebrates, and plants deprived of fresh water during the hot summer months when they need it most.
Floodplain forests are drying out and losing millions of trees
A recently released presentation documents the profound changes in historic flow patterns that have led to decreased flows in the late spring and summer of most years, devastating the vast wetland forests bordering the Apalachicola River. More than 4 million floodplain trees have been lost since the mid-1970s, primarily in low-lying swamps. Prolonged dry conditions in these swamps have severely reduced the number of seedlings that survive, crippling the reproduction of tupelo, the most common tree in the floodplain. Unless adequate summer flooding resumes, many more millions of trees will be lost, imperiling the entire floodplain ecosystem and everything that depends on it.
Oyster populations have been decimated and the Bay is now closed for up to five years
The oyster harvest collapsed in 2012, the year with the lowest flow ever recorded. Persistent low flows during both 2011 and 2012 led to continuously high salinity in the Bay for months at a time. This decimated oyster populations by allowing disease bacteria to proliferate and oyster predators from the Gulf to take up permanent residence in the Bay. Damage was so severe that the Bay was not able to recover. This summer, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission was forced to take the unprecedented measure of closing the Bay to oyster harvesting for up to five years.
Upstream water management and flow regulation have failed to address downstream realities
Irresponsible management of agricultural irrigation and other upstream water uses during dry years has led to persistent declines in summer flows. In addition, shortsighted flow regulation policies by the Army Corps of Engineers have encouraged upstream consumption by holding river water in reservoirs, instead of releasing it to the Apalachicola River in a timely manner.
Watch the newly released video documenting the profound changes in flow patterns that have devastated the vast wetland forests bordering the Apalachicola River.
This cross section of the floodplain shows how the natural summertime overflow from the main channel of the Apalachicola River floods the swamps. Under current conditions, however, river levels in summer often drop down to the lowest levels, shown here in darker blue. When this happens, water is cut off from the swamps for months at a time, imperiling tupelo trees and other swamp plants and animals.
Learn more on the legal challenge to the USACE related to water management in the ACF Basin.