By Jim McClellan
There’s a stand of willows at the south end of Iamonia Lake, an oxbow off the Apalachicola River. The willows are right in the middle of the channel and if you’re driving a boat on that stretch, you have to choose right or left. One way takes you to the river; the other leads you to shallow, muddy dead end.
There’s nothing special about this willow island, except that it wasn’t there thirty-five years ago. The water was too high. Now we have to choose our path carefully.
Unfortunately, Iamonia Lake is just one symptom of a problem that plagues the Apalachicola in its entirety. Once navigable sloughs, lakes and ponds now are dry or extremely low for much of the year. I can hunt in some of the same places where I used to catch fish. I can see the dry white sand and loose pebbles where I know the bream and shellcracker would bed if only there was water.
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 sixties, seventies and eighties who say they’ve never seen it this low this long. Creeks have turned into footpaths. Ponds are indistinguishable from the surrounding woods. Cypress trees are struggling to survive, sometimes now hundreds of feet from water.
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.
There was a time when the river could be all things to all people: a drinking water supply for our neighbors to the north, a transportation system linking the mountains to the sea and a source of recreation and sustenance for everyone fortunate enough to live along its path. That time has passed. Now we have to choose which of those things deserves our greatest efforts to protect. It’s an important choice. One way can take us to a sustainable, healthy river system; the other will leave us high and dry.
Despite the problems, I’m optimistic about the future of the river. Sooner or later, the people in all three states will come together and agree on the importance of saving it.
My hope and prayer is that we don’t wait too long to make the right choice.
Jim McClellan is among the fifth generation of his family to grow up on the Apalachicola River in Calhoun County. Though he now lives and works in Pensacola, Florida, he counts himself fortunate to spend most of his free time back home, hunting, fishing and enjoying life in the river swamp.