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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Journey Down Two Rivers (part 2)

Air Date: Week of

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We continue our journey down the Chattahoochee, where the river changes names and character. Clay Scott reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Our story of the Chattahoochee River doesn’t stop in Atlanta. Farther south, the river forms the border between Georgia and Alabama. At Lake Seminole on the Florida line, the Chattahoochee joins together with the Flint River to form the Apalachicola, which flows a hundred miles to the Gulf of Mexico. The river changes character and supports different ecosystems along its course, from swamps and ravines and flood plains to the unique estuary at Apalachicola Bay.

The river provides a livelihood to people who fish and boat and it’s home to hundreds of species of wildlife, some found nowhere else. And all who live on the river are affected by decisions made hundreds of miles upstream. Clay Scott continues his journey down the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers.

SCOTT: As it flows south along the Alabama-Georgia line, the Chattahoochee River passes through sleepy towns like Cottonton, Gordon, and Holy Trinity. This is farmland: fields of cotton, soybeans, and peanuts broken up by occasional patches of woods.

But below Lake Seminole, on the Florida-Georgia border, the Chattahoochee becomes the Apalachicola, a river with a markedly different character. Much of the land it flows through is a virtual wilderness, sparsely inhabited forest of pines and hardwoods with impenetrable swamps and ravines.

Only a handful of people live in these north Florida woods, and their lives are defined by the river. One of them is Marilyn Blackwell.

BLACKWELL: I piddle in several different things; you know, crawfishing, deadhead logging, catfishing, just, you know, people, a lot of people in this area did things, you know, seasonally, you know, to make a living that is gone now.

SCOTT: The Apalachicola River has always provided Marilyn with at least a modest living, but it’s in the adjacent swamps with their tupelo and cypress trees that she feels most at home.

BLACKWELL: There’s rivers everywhere. But you haven’t got the river swamp everywhere. And it’s just a wonderland. And I spent a lot of time in it, and learned a lot of things. And it didn’t take long to see the changes going on in what was being done, you know.

SCOTT: Over the years, Marilyn saw both the river and the swamps she depended on being degraded and destroyed. One fine day, she tells me, I just woke up angry. She takes me out in a 12-foot boat to show me the source of her anger.


BLACKWELL: That’s another sand deposit. See where the tree line is back in yonder? River used to be way over there. See all these trees here that’s fell in? That’s from where they had the barges tied up and they left them tied up. And you see the force of the water is coming around and hitting that bank, and then rolled under them barges and cut that bank, undercut it and make the trees fall in. Plus that sand deposit right there, it keeps pushing the river, the water, that way.

SCOTT: The piles of sand she points to are the result of dredging by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, mandated by Congress to keep the river open for commercial barges. The Corps maintains a channel nine feet deep and 100 feet wide, despite the fact that barge traffic in recent years has dwindled to almost nothing.

Meanwhile, the silt and sand from the dredging plugs up the sloughs that connect the river to the swamps: vital spawning and breeding ground for countless fish, birds, mammals, and other creatures.

BLACKWELL: It’s just like cutting arteries off in a body. The sloughs are where, in the summertime during low water, you know, there is a whole, you know, world out there where the otter stayed in low water, you know, they had, you know, water places back in there. And the deer and the raccoon and the birds, there was, you know, the ibis and all had rookeries back there on the sloughs, and all that’s dried up, filled in.

SCOTT: Marilyn Blackwell’s observations are echoed by John Blanchard, the biologist from the Nature Conservancy in Florida. Along with the dredging, Blanchard says, the sudden release of water from upstream dams creates a scouring action along the riverbed, further cutting off the river from the swamp and floodplain.

BLANCHARD: And as that river lowers, it disconnects the streams that did feed into it. So instead of having a connected stream that flows right into the river, what you have is a stream that has a waterfall before it gets to the river. That does at least one really bad thing, which is that it prevents species that live in the river from swimming back up these streams when they need to.

SCOTT: The number of species found here is staggering. The Apalachicola basin has the highest diversity of reptiles and amphibians in the United States and Canada, including the Barbour’s Map turtle and the Apalachicola king snake. One hundred and thirty species of fish live here, 57 species of mammals, including the threatened Florida black bear, 300 species of birds, 1,300 plant species. All of them depend, in one way or another, on the intricate balance between the river, on the one hand, and the flood plain, swamps, and ravines. And that balance is being threatened, both by dredging and by low and irregular flows of water.

BLANCHARD: The real concern that we have here is that we will lose the quality and variability of the flows of this river. If we lose the variability of flows, that is, the floodplain ceases to be flooded at the right time and in the right quantity and for the right duration, many of those fish species will diminish in numbers dramatically.

SCOTT: The impact of those irregular flows is felt all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, 90 miles downstream. Some ocean species migrate up the river to spawn. Others remain in the bay but depend on the flow of fresh water from the river and the nutrients it brings with it. Not only are the marine species affected, but so are the people who depend on them for their living. And that includes almost everyone in Apalachicola, the town known to locals as Apalach.

GARRITY: To some people it might have seemed that we had a poor, hard life, but to me, I felt very rich.

SCOTT: Violet Garrity is the descendent of four generations of fishermen. I met her at the Ramshackle Marina where she lives in a houseboat with her husband and their three sons, all of them fishermen.

With the dwindling productivity of Apalachicola Bay, fishermen like the Garritys are being forced farther out to sea to find good fishing grounds. Many are quitting altogether.

GARRITY: To me it’s like it’s ending, and I just hate it for the area, because it’s so beautiful. And it just makes me sad, it really does. And we’re wondering if maybe it’s not time for us to leave this area, too, and find another place.

SCOTT: But it might not be easy to find another place like Apalachicola, at least like Apalachicola used to be. Until recently, this remote and beautiful stretch of coast had been miraculously untouched by developers. Now, condominiums and beachfront houses are starting to spring up where fishermen once launched their boats.

Still, the biggest threat to this town’s traditional way of life comes from upriver. Woody Miley manages the Apalachicola National Estuarine Reserve. To have a healthy bay, he says, you need a healthy river.

MILEY: A major part of the driving force for productivity in Apalachicola Bay is the leaf litter that falls in the river swamp. This system has evolved dependent on floods, so that that nutrient source is washed from the floodplain and goes through the detrital food web in Apalachicola Bay. We’re not talking just the potential loss of the Apalachicola estuarine system. Collectively and synergistically in these kind of things along the Gulf Coast, we are talking the potential loss of the productivity of the Gulf of Mexico.

SCOTT: Some people in Apalachicola run shrimp boats. Others are crabbers or hook-and-line fishermen. But more than anything, this bay has always been known for its famously delicate and delicious oysters. One in ten people here holds an oyster permit and many more work in the shucking houses. And it’s the oysters, says Woody Miley, that are most immediately affected by changes in the river.

MILEY: Apalachicola Bay needs an equitable allocation of fresh water to maintain the salinity gradient in the bay, in particular for the oysters. Because, with the exception of blue crabs, all parasites, predators, and diseases of oysters require high salinity. So when the river flows down, there is more of an influence from the open gulf, salinity goes up, the parasites, predators, and diseases move in and can totally devastate the bars.

SCOTT: Not only are there fewer oysters, people here say, but the lack of fresh water in the bay has begun to affect both their taste and their appearance. The result is a product that is saltier, less distinctive, less appealing and less marketable. For the men and women who harvest oysters in Apalachicola, that has made a hard life even harder.


SCOTT: Wade and Diana Marks are one of many husband and wife teams who work the oyster bars together. They balance nonchalantly in an ancient 14-foot wooden boat as pelicans skim the waves nearby. Wade probes the bottom for oysters with a wooden pole, then working the metal tongs, heaves them into the boat where he and his wife sort through the pile of mud and shells.

W. MARKS: Well, most of the days there’s a lot of shells, there’s a lot to go through to get a few oysters. Used to be like, you know, you could do good.

SCOTT: All this you gotta throw back?

W. MARKS: Yes. It’s a lot, a lot of work is what it usually is. You just can’t make what you want. [LAUGHS] If you get in ‘em good you can make $60, $70, you know, get going...

SCOTT: Is that enough to live on down here?

W. MARKS: Well, I get by, I’ll put it that way. About all you can do is get by.

SCOTT: It’s hard and sometimes dangerous work to harvest these oysters, oysters that end up in the finest restaurants in America. Few oystermen here have savings or insurance. For Wade and Diana Marks, the reward is simply to stay on the water, to avoid, for another season at least, the dreaded alternative: a land job. But both of them acknowledge that day is coming.

D. MARKS: I like working with my husband. It’s, you just gotta love the water to be on it. A lot better than land. Maybe next year we’ll have a land job, but not this year.

SCOTT: Many residents of Apalachicola blame Atlanta for the changes taking place. It’s the people of that faraway city, they feel, who are sucking their precious river dry with their swimming pools and lawns and fountains. But Atlanta is only a part of the equation, says Lindsay Thomas, who has been working on water issues for years.

THOMAS: This isn’t just about dividing gallons of water. A lot of people would like to think it’s that simple. But behind all of this there is the broader concern about water in the American southeast, as it is a global concern.

SCOTT: Until this fall, Thomas was the Federal Commissioner, coordinating 11 federal agencies and working with officials of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, trying to find an allocation formula for the waters of the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers. But a formula alone cannot alleviate the water shortage in the southeast, he says, only strict conservation measures can.

THOMAS: If you just continue to grow and if you don’t conserve, and you don’t manage, and you don't forecast growth, and you don’t deal with all of those other issues that have an impact on water and natural resources, you could get in serious trouble. We do not manufacture water. We don’t create one ounce, not one gallon, not one pint, not one quart. The water is there that is provided by nature. That’s all we’ve got. It’s often said here in Georgia, all we got is all we’ve got.

SCOTT: Back on the Apalachicola River, their boat drifting slowly with the current, Marilyn Blackwell couldn’t agree more.

BLACKWELL: When it comes to, you know, people watering their lawns or a river surviving, you know, it’s got to be the river survives, because that’s part of our world. And when you keep chipping away at our world, you’re going to sooner or later, you know, you’re just going to do away with people.

SCOTT: The current water crisis has been a wakeup call to people here in the southeast, a reminder that not even this lush region is immune to shortages, as water becomes an increasingly limited and precious resource all over the world.

For Living on Earth, I’m Clay Scott on the Apalachicola River.


[MUSIC: Kelly Joe Phelps - Where Do I Go Now “Lead Me On” Burnside (1994)]

CURWOOD: You can learn more about life along the Apalachicola and Chattahoochee Rivers by going to loe.org. You’ll find images by nature photographers Joe and Monica Cook. You’ll hear ecologist Phillip Greear talk about his lifelong love of the river. And you can listen to Clay Scott’s personal notebook about his journey. It’s a trip down the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers on the Living on Earth website, loe.org. That’s loe.org.




Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper


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