Hydrology

How the Water Flows

The primary focus of BAYSAVERS is the restoration of Apalachicola Bay, St. Joseph Bay, and the Lake Wimico Watershed that connects them to their pre-industrial state, before man connected the once pristine freshwater ecosystems of Lake Wimico and its 75,000 acre drainage basin to the saline environments of St. Joe Bay. We are especially concerned about the damages that increased salinization and sedimentation are causing to these diverse but connected environments.  These salinity and sediment problems are caused by low flow periods and high flow events in the Apalachicola River and it’s floodplain.

 

Causes of Low Flow

While debate continues about the causes of low river flow in the Apalachicola river, most will agree it is largely a factor of irresponsible upstream usage. Our group firmly believes that the overriding factor in this low flow environment is caused by irresponsible upstream use, specifically the unrestricted growth of Atlanta and surrounding areas, and Georgia agricultural practices, especially unregulated damming of tributaries for pond and reservoir creation and deep well pivot irrigation.

What there is NO debate about is the fact that low flow is a serious threat to the health of our ecosystems, and it is happening more frequently and with longer duration. (For a more detailed discussion of flow please see the article titled Water-Level Decline in the Apalachicola River, Florida, from 1954 to 2004, and Effects on Floodplain Habitats) Our group wholeheartedly supports Florida’s ongoing legal efforts to hold Georgia accountable for this irresponsible and unfair usage of our precious water.

 

Saltwater Intrusion & Stormwater Runoff Sedimentation

There are several well established groups (including the State of Florida) working to remedy this Low Flow problem, and we continue to support their efforts. What the BAYSAVERS group wants to bring to light is the large amount of salt water that is being injected into the Apalachicola River system because of these low flow periods. Over the centuries our plants and animals have adapted, to a certain extent, to periods of low flow and high flow, but NOT to these dangerous man made injections of salt water into Apalachicola Bay that are occurring with ever increasing frequency because of these low flow events, and the reverse issue of massive man-made runoff sedimentation into St. Joseph Bay during high river flow events.

Our group is committed to eliminating this man-made influx of detrimental salt water into the Apalachicola Bay and Marsh and the damage done to its complex oyster bar based ecosystem, as well as the reverse issue of runoff sedimentation and turbidity in St. Joe Bay and the destruction of its intricate and fragile sea-grass based ecosystems. We are committed to restoring the hydrology of these complicated ecosystems to their original state, the way they had existed for thousands of years before man intervened and connected the salt water environment of St. Joe Bay with the fresh water ecosystems of Lake Wimico, the Jackson River and the Apalachicola River.

The complex relationships between low river flow and salinization, high river flow and sedimentation, and the man-made connection of two separate and very complex ecosystems are widely misunderstood. Sea level rise, climate change, and the dependence of this fresh water system for our drinking water also add urgency to this issue. Our group is making every effort to educate the ”powers that be” about the hydrology of this complex ecosystem, and the effects this catastrophic situation are causing.

 

The Solution

We, however, have GOOD NEWS! Unlike so many of the environmental issues we face today, the solution to this part of the problem is simple and relatively inexpensive. We have talked for some time about some form of tide gate or lock to stop the saltwater intrusion into this ecosystem AND to prevent loss of valuable freshwater and silt from the Apalachicola river system that should be going to Apalachicola bay, where it would nourish the bay, and is instead going into St. Joe bay where it is causing damage in the form of increased bay turbidity, sea grass damage due to sedimentation and decreased clarity, and extensive silting in areas that once had pristine sea grass and clean sand bottom.

These Water control Stuctures or Locks are a common feature on many waterways in Louisiana, Mississippi, and here in Florida. A few examples are the Bayou Teche and Vermillion river locks in Louisiana, and the Cape Canaveral locks here in Florida. These locks are relatively easy and inexpensive to build and maintain. The technology and engineering are already available; we just need the political will to make it happen.

Economically and environmentally, we think that this gate or lock would be best situated on the ICW itself, as opposed to the Gulf county canal. If we were able to place a lock somewhere between the connection of the Gulf County Industrial Canal and the ICW (The T)  and the power line easement just south of White City it would stop the salt water intrusion from BOTH the Gulf county canal AND the inter coastal connection to East Bay. (See Map) It would also allow unobstructed access between Panama City and the Gulf County Canal on the ICW. It would also allow for better flow (mostly tidal) through the Gulf County canal. There is virtually no local opposition to this project and this one solution will solve both salinity and sedimentation problems simultaneously. This lock would continue to allow access to the ICW for boat traffic, it would only stop FLOW. This could also allow the Gulf County Park and boat ramps at White City to be on the “freshwater” side of the lock, and White City would resume its historic role as gateway to Lake Wimico.

 

Lake Wimico

Lake Wimico is a treasure unto itself, and is one of the few natural lakes in Florida that does not have a single residence on it, nor does it have any road access. This natural wonder should be protected and saved in its own right, and the contribution of its drainage basin to the freshwater ecosystems of the Apalachicola Marsh and Apalachicola Bay has been largely overlooked.

Lake Wimico Looking South to Apalachicola Bay

115 years ago there was NEVER any flow through Lake Wimico. For thousands of years this huge area collected, filtered and fed freshwater exclusively into Apalachicola Bay through the Jackson River. Since its connection with St. Joe Bay and the persistent low flow periods we are now suffering we are seeing extreme degradation and destruction of the Cypress trees, buggy whips and ALL freshwater vegetation in the Lake caused by increased salinity. Waterfowl are an excellent indicator for ecosystem health. We used to winter thousands of ducks and other water fowl on Lake Wimico and the Apalachicola River Marsh. These waterfowl still migrate through here, but they only stay a very short while because of the lack of aquatic vegetation for food. Lake Wimico has become nothing more than an extended salt marsh!

 

Hurricane Katrina

We know for a fact that decreasing salinity and increasing freshwater flow will result in a recovery like they are seeing in Louisiana. There the levees on the east side of the river were washed out by Katrina and fresh water is now entering areas that it has been prevented from running for over 100 years. These areas are rebounding with freshwater vegetation and wildlife, especially waterfowl and oysters, more than anyone thought possible.

We realize that this project will take a lot of time, energy and effort, but we think it is absolutely mandatory if we are going to save Apalachicola Bay and St. Joe Bay, as well as Lake Wimico and its surrounding wetlands, THREE of the most environmentally unique and economically important ecosystems on the Gulf Coast of Florida, and the entire Gulf of Mexico.