FROM THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
By MARGIE MENZEL
EASTPOINT, Fla., November 9, 2015……….With a crisis facing the Apalachicola Bay in Florida’s Panhandle, about 130 people attended an event held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Monday in Eastpoint to voice their concerns about the agency’s plans for the waters that feed the bay.
The “open house” was the fifth and final event in the Corps’ solicitation of public comment on its draft water manual for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, which Florida shares with Georgia and Alabama.
Floridians, including members of the state’s congressional delegation, have criticized the Corps’ draft water manual as worse for the Apalachicola Bay than the current plan, which has been in place since 1958. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the bay a federal fishery disaster in 2010.
But while the health of the Apalachicola Bay was the paramount issue for most of the attendees at Monday’s open house, Col. Jon Chytka, the Corps of Engineers’ Mobile district commander, said their comments would be balanced with those from elsewhere in the river system. That includes Lake Lanier, which provides metro Atlanta with drinking water at the top of the ACF system.
A recent open house at Lake Lanier drew 72 people — the second-most attendees of the Corps’ five open houses on the ACF plan.
“There’s nothing decided yet,” Chytka said Monday. “This is the opportunity for the public to come in and actually tell us what they think of those manuals.”
The event was the latest development in the so-called “water wars” over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, which have been going on since 1990. Since then, Florida and Alabama have sparred with Georgia over the water, often in court, as Atlanta’s population has exploded and the Corps of Engineers has controlled the flows in the tri-state river system.
But Chytka said the Corps’ hands are tied to some extent. He also said the draft plan currently only applies to the river system from the Georgia state line south to 6.7 miles north of the Apalachicola Bay, at the river’s intersection with the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. But the plan could change, subject to public comment.
Additionally, Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire said, the Corps relied for data on several years in which the Apalachicola River and Bay were plagued by drought.
“They’re not dealing with some of the most recent information, which we’re going to try to provide to them — and I’m sure the state will as well,” Tonsmeire said. “The two most recent droughts, in 2007 and 2012, when the bay collapsed or took a very hard dive, happened to coincide with the two times they’ve given us the lowest flat-line flow ever.”
As the states have fought over the water, the Apalachicola Bay has suffered droughts, a tropical storm and the BP oil spill, which prompted a massive harvest of oysters in the bay in 2010.
“We need (the Corps) to go back and look at the bay when it was healthy, not when it was sick,” Tonsmeire said.
But Chytka said the Corps’ plan relies on data that goes back 73 years, and that the agency looks at the river system in its entirety.
He also said certain comments are outside of the Corps’ authority — such as those relating to the health of the Apalachicola Bay’s seafood industry.
“In the end, Congress has ordered us and the president has signed laws that guide our path, and those are the ones we have to follow,” he said. “When we go outside those lines, then people become offended. So there’s litigation or something like that.”
Among those on hand for the open house was Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association — although few of the workers joined him.
“They’ve about given up,” Hartsfield said. “I’m their voice, and I’ve been all over and expressed and expressed and expressed, but we haven’t seen (any) difference.”
Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham, who represents Franklin County, also attended the event. Graham has filed a bill that would expand the Corps’ scope of authority and allow the agency to consider freshwater flows to the Apalachicola Bay as part of its water manual. The bill is backed by most members of Florida’s legislative delegation.
Graham said the Corps’ draft plan “is not doing what it’s required to do under law, which is to consider all the users of the ACF system, including Apalachicola Bay.”
The Corps has extended the public comment period an additional 45 days beyond the original 60, meaning comments will be accepted through mid-December. The agency released the draft in late September.