For thousands of years St. Andrews Bay and St. Joe Bay flourished as primarily saltwater ecosystems, with only small amounts of runoff from local rainfall entering these bays.
Waters were “gin clear” and expansive seagrass beds dominated the bay bottoms, interspersed with clean sand and conch beds. The nearby 75,000-acre Lake Wimico drainage basin and the 20,000-square-mile Apalachicola River drainage basin flourished alongside, but not connected to, the St. Joe Bay and St. Andrews Bay ecosystems.
The Lake Wimico and Apalachicola River freshwater drainage basins collected, filtered, and fed exclusively into Apalachicola Bay and its marshes. This freshwater, and its valuable sediment, fed the oyster bar-based ecosystems of Apalachicola Bay, which produced abundant quantities of oysters, shrimp, redfish, trout and many other species of wildlife.
In the early 1900’s America was buzzing with industrial activity. The mighty Mississippi River was being channeled and dredged to produce more farmland. All of America’s big rivers were being “Industrialized.” Florida was no different. Napoleon Broward, then governor of Florida, was draining the Everglades with huge dredges and canals. His words were ‘’Knock a hole in the wall of coral and let a body of water obey natural law and seek the level of the sea.”
The Panhandle was also in on the action, with the “1,000 Mile Miracle” Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) being dredged from The Mississippi River to Lake Wimico, a 17,000-acre lake that is the source of the Jackson River, here in Gulf and Franklin counties.
The 25-mile stretch of the GIWW between Lake Wimico and the Jackson River and St. Andrews Bay was one of the first to be completed on the Gulf Coast. This part of the GIWW connected the valuable cargoes on the Chattahoochee, Flint, Chipola and Apalachicola rivers to the deepwater port of Panama City
This following excerpt from “The History of the GIWW” by Lynn M. Alperin notes:
“Captain (Later Brigadier General) Harley B. Ferguson surmised that the three candidates for deep-water development were the ports of Apalachicola, Port St. Joe, and Panama City. Apalachicola was eliminated because of the large amounts of silt carried down the river and deposited in Apalachicola Bay. St. Joseph Bay was thought to be more exposed to the Gulf than St. Andrew Bay and the low, marshy coastal region north of Port St. Joe was considered a deterrent to establishing rail connections from the port to the interior. Panama City had relatively high ground toward the interior, making it more accessible.
Thus, the Army Engineers selected Panama City for deep-water port development, enhancing the commercial potential of this eastern stretch of the future GIWW. The advantages of these improvements indeed appeared so evident to Captain Ferguson that this future president of the Mississippi River Commission concluded his survey recommendation with the statement: ’With this short canal and the opening of St. Andrews Bay you will have the engineering problem of a harbor without silt, and a commercial problem with freight assured and the rate thereon regulated by 470 miles of navigable rivers following the natural line of traffic from a rich territory.’”
While the commercial benefits of the GIWW were considerable, the environmental consequences were never considered. This direct connection of the vast, 20,000-square-mile Apalachicola River floodplain and its noted silt output with the saltwater environments of St. Andrews Bay, and in 1938, St. Joe Bay, have been catastrophic. It has, In Napoleon Broward’s words “let a body of water obey natural law and seek the level of the sea.”
This direct connection of a pristine, zero-flow, freshwater drainage basin ecosystem with the saline environments of St. Joe Bay and St. Andrews Bay is now causing catastrophic damage to the Lake Wimico watershed and the Apalachicola River system, its marshes and Apalachicola Bay. Our data indicates Apalachicola Bay is losing over 1,000,000,000,000 (1 trillion) gallons of precious freshwater and its valuable sediment for the oyster bar-based ecosystems there each year.
These three billion gallons per day are discharged roughly 55 percent into St. Andrews Bay and 45 percent into St. Joe Bay.
This freshwater and sediment are being discharged into the saline environments of St. Andrews Bay and St. Joe Bay as harmful runoff. Each year a volume of water equal to the amount of water in Lake Okeechobee is being lost from Apalachicola Bay!
This unregulated flow on the GIWW is causing massive, unrestrained runoff into St Joe Bay and St. Andrews Bay, resulting in extreme sedimentation of the entire bay floor and increased turbidity, causing damage to seagrass beds and the marine life that depends on them.
This connection via the GIWW effectively drained Lake Wimico and its marshes of several feet of water, as well as creating a constant flow OUT of the Lake, where historically there was none.
More importantly, the GIWW continues each and every day to divert precious freshwater and its sediment from the Apalachicola Bay Watershed, (where it would nourish), into St. Andrews Bay and St. Joe Bay, (where it harms).
Since the Corps stopped maintaining navigational depth on the Apalachicola River, low flow periods have been well-documented. When the River level is low, sustained Southeast winds, especially those associated with tropical weather systems, tend to “flush” Lake Wimico and its marshes with saltwater. The state of Florida has recently acquired Lake Wimico and its adjacent marshes, and research is beginning that will monitor these events.
Our research team recorded a massive “flush” of these ecosystems due to Tropical Storm Nestor on Oct. 19, 2019. Thousands of acres of treasured aquatic freshwater grasses, so essential to wintering waterfowl and other wildlife, have been replaced by an extended salt marsh and almost complete loss of these species!
We now know the consequences of these well-intentioned, but environmentally disastrous projects.
The Everglades have suffered catastrophic damage, and the state of Florida is spending billions of dollars to try and remedy a small part of the damages done.
Here in the Panhandle, however, we have the unique opportunity to “turn back the clock,” so to speak, and reverse the effects of these industrial projects that have caused so much damage to our state, at a relatively low cost.
The GIWW was essential for the development of the industries that made up the old economy of the Florida Panhandle.
Now, however, the movement of freight down the Apalachicola River into the Port of Panama City, the Paper Mill in Port St. Joe, the chemical plants in Port St. Joe, these commercial interests no longer exist.
Residents of the Panhandle now depend on the preservation, restoration and maintenance of our diverse natural ecosystems for our economic survival. This natural beauty, and diversity of flora and fauna, make the Panhandle unique, and attractive to the tourists, visitors and new residents that are the new economy of the Panhandle.
Any solution to this economic and environmental tragedy will have to involve the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps needs to initiate a feasibility study to evaluate the problem of uncontrolled flow on the GIWW and its damage to Apalachicola Bay, St. Andrews Bay, St. Joe Bay and Lake Wimico and its marshes.
Controlling flow on the GIWW will solve all of these various problems with one solution.
This is not a radical or original idea, nor does it require great insight or scientific knowledge. Controlling flow on the GIWW will simply ‘turn back the clock,” so to speak, and return the hydrology of these four valuable and unique ecosystems to their original state that existed for thousands of years, before we artificially connected them with the GIWW.
This is the first of a two-part article. Part two will attempt to explain the processes needed for solving this far reaching problem, and how the citizens of the Panhandle can get involved.
Dusty May is director of Baysavers. If you are interested in this issue of uncontrolled flow on the GIWW, see the Baysavers website at Baysaversfl.org for more information.