WASHINGTON -- April 15 -- Conservationists hailed the Florida Department of Environmental Protection today for shutting down the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' destructive activities along the Apalachicola River in the Florida panhandle. On April 13, the agency denied a request from the Corps to continue dredging the river bottom. In 2002, American Rivers designated the Apalachicola River as one of America's "most endangered," calling on state and federal authorities to put an end to these activities.
"We're giving the thumbs up to Florida for putting its foot down," said Melissa Samet, senior director for water resources at American Rivers. "This was a bold and decisive move that shows they take seriously their obligations to their citizens and the environment."
For decades, the Corps has dredged and manipulated water levels in the Apalachicola River to keep the river deep enough to float a dwindling handful of commercial barges. After dredging mountains of sand from the river bottom, the agency disposed of along the river's banks, in wetlands and the mouths of creeks, damaging the surrounding floodplain forest. The agency has also used its upstream dams to artificially flood the river then turn off the spigot, devastating populations of river fish and contributing to the decline of valuable commercial fisheries in Apalachicola Bay.
This destruction was particularly senseless since the Apalachicola River sees virtually no commercial barge traffic. In 2000, the Corps acknowledged that barge traffic on the river returned only 40 cents to the nation for each federal dollar spent, and since then commercial barge traffic has dropped to virtually zero.
Florida's decision stops one of the major threats to the Apalachicola River, one of the most biologically productive rivers in North America. The river and its floodplain forest support commercial and sport fisheries, endangered species, and dense populations of amphibians and reptiles. The Apalachicola's waters also sustain Apalachicola Bay, which offers the largest oyster harvesting area in the Gulf of Mexico, providing nearly 90 percent of Florida's oysters. Together, the river and bay support thousands of commercial fishing, recreational fishing, and ecotourism jobs, forming the cornerstone of the economy of six Florida counties.
"This decision removes a dark cloud that was hanging over the future of one of America's most valuable rivers," Samet said. "The future for thousands of people who make their living on the water in the Florida panhandle is a little more secure."