The Apalachicola River and Bay system in the Florida Panhandle is an area of exceptional ecological importance. It constitutes one of the least polluted, least developed, resource-rich systems left in the United States. Designated as an International Biosphere Reserve, a National Estuarine Research Reserve and an Outstanding Florida Water, the river supports the most diverse assemblage of freshwater fish in Florida and the largest number of endemic species in western Florida. Apalachicola River and Bay are inextricably linked – the river and its floodplain are the biological factory that fuels the estuary’s productivity.
Despite its enormous ecological value, the Apalachicola ecosystem has been severely degraded over the decades, due to the impoundment of water by upstream reservoirs, consumptive use of water by farms and cities, and decades of navigational dredging and channel alterations. The combined effect of these activities has been to alter the river’s flow regime, reduce the river’s habitat diversity, and smother and displace habitat in the river’s rich sloughs and floodplains. More than four million trees have died in the river’s floodplain due to lack of overbank flows over the past four decades, a decline approximately 40 percent.
This mismanagement of the river, combined with a prolonged drought in 2011 and 2012, has caused significant damage in the river and bay system. Lack of river flows led to the collapse of the bay’s oyster populations and triggered a federal declaration of a commercial fishery failure for the bay’s oyster fishery, which had previously produced as much as 10 percent of the nation’s oysters annually. Today, the bay’s oyster harvests are still far below normal. Restoring river flows is essential to the recovery of the Apalachicola’s famed oysters.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is currently funding a scientific assessment of the geomorphology, hydrology, and ecological processes in a portion of the river in order to develop projects to restore endangered mussel habitat. The National Wildlife Federation is participating in these efforts and urges the state to expand this work into a comprehensive hydro-geomorphic study of the river and to carry out restoration projects identified by the process.