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Column: A trip down the Apalachicola shows a natural river fighting for its life in a war over water


Behind us, the East Bay is jagged with whitecaps and a sharp spring wind troubles the bulrushes. But when Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire cuts the engine farther into the delta, the place is as quiet as a prayer. To the north, the Apalachicola snakes up to Georgia, the source of its essential waters as well as its woes; to the south, there's the bay, home of the iconic oyster, the bivalve beloved of gourmands all over the world. Here, in the shallows by the bank, an alligator decides to check us out, surfacing like a submarine, eyes first, then the rest of the snout. We're in his territory.

Tonsmeire gestures toward the confluence of marsh, river and sky: "The fresh water meets the salt water. Where we are on the planet, and the way the system has evolved makes this one of the most productive estuaries in the Northern Hemisphere. It's nature's finest."

The Apalachicola is one of the last ecosystems in North America to retain such an abundance of flora and fauna: 40 species of amphibians, 50 species of mammals, 80 species of reptiles, 131 species of fish, 360 species of marine mollusks, 1,300 species of plants, and birds — birds in the reeds, on the water, in the trees, pelicans, cormorants, red-winged blackbirds, black-bellied plovers, at least 200 native species. "It's all interdependent," says Tonsmeire. "The river, the bay, the fisheries of the eastern gulf."

The paradisal abundance of river and bay — phytoplankton and eagles, mollusks and bats, flathead cats and swallow-tailed kites, tupelo trees and turtle grass — is thanks to fresh water surging into the bay and beyond to the Gulf of Mexico, a Goldilocks cocktail of waters: not too salty and not too sweet. In satellite images, an emerald mist seems to hover over the rivers and fan out into the gulf, 250 miles down to Tampa Bay: a "green plume," as Dr. Felicia Coleman, director of Florida State University's Coastal and Marine Laboratory, describes it.

"What you see is the chlorophyll in the water, the good nutrients coming down," Coleman says. "It feeds the fish."

And the fish feed Florida: Our gulf fisheries are worth $8 billion to the state. Much more when you count related industries. The green plume helps maintain 110,000 jobs, too, from St. Joe to Longboat Key.

But some people figure the fish should feed themselves. The oysters and the other wildlife, too. Upstream, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls Lake Lanier, north of Atlanta, and four other reservoirs on the Chattahoochee. The Corps shows no inclination to send more water Florida's way. Nor does the state of Georgia. Georgia farmers and Atlanta sprawl-lords use water with abandon. Florida actually sued Georgia for water-hogging, hoping to force Georgia to release more fresh water into the Apalachicola.

Despite a U.S. Supreme Court-appointed special master finding that Georgia's attitude is that "agricultural water use should be subject to no limitations, regardless of the long-term consequences," despite acknowledging the harm being done to the Apalachicola, Florida lost.

Water as smooth as a birdbath

We head upriver into less briny flows, where the salt-tolerant cypresses on the bank are joined by river birch, water oaks and palms. Spider lilies will soon open along the banks, lining the river with starlike white flowers.

Remarkably, the Apalachicola hasn't been prostituted to developers: This is Florida, after all. Luckily, much of the land around it is owned by the public: state forests, national forests and charismatic swamps such as Tate's Hell. In the Little St. Marks River (not to be confused with the St. Marks River 65 miles to the east), the water is smooth as a birdbath. Here the Apalachicola country is at its most pacific. We pass osprey guarding their shaggy, tire-sized nests in the tops of dead cypresses while swallow-tailed kites spiral overhead. Just ahead, the Ogeechee tupelos are beginning to bloom.

The naturalist and explorer William Bartram "discovered" the tupelo (the native people had, of course, known it for millennia) in the 1770s during his travels along the Ogeechee River in Georgia. Bartram made a drawing of one: rippling roots like the hair of a pre-Raphaelite princess, curling down into the water. But Nyssa ogeche, the white tupelo, belongs by rights to North Florida, where its nectar becomes the best honey in the world.

One pound of tupelo honey takes 2 million tupelo blooms. Though the Apalachicola still has the largest natural stand of tupelos on the planet, their numbers are diminishing. Like the oysters, the sea grasses and the young fish they harbor, the trees of the flood plain need fresh water. They aren't getting it — or not enough of it. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 4 million trees have been lost to Apalachicola basin over the past 40 years — a million Ogeechee tupelo among them.

Tupelo flowers look like tiny hot green satellites, space-age spikes sticking out all over. The blossoms are just now beginning to open. Soon the bees will come, brought over in those hives that look like old-timey file cabinet drawers, and sat on platforms along the banks of the river. The bees collect the nectar, store it in their bodies and bring it back out again as honey: a miracle, a transubstantiation of the swamp.

A place of rivers

A snowy egrets takes off, light as a dandelion seed, disappearing into the cypresses. A few yards in front of the boat, a mullet jumps — or maybe it's a smallish sturgeon — disappearing swiftly under the surface of the water way ahead of the boat. The endangered gulf sturgeon spawns in the shoals up near the headwaters of the Apalachicola — if it gets enough fresh water. This creature has lived on the Earth more than 200 million years. It is older than Florida itself.

Florida cultivates an image of itself as a place of beaches, but Florida is really a place of rivers — rivers are our history, our first highways. Look at a map of the state: there are so many rivers, streams, sloughs, and creeks it looks like veins in a body. The rivers remind us that Florida is barely land: a scrape of soil on an eggshell layer of limestone perched on top of ancient waters.

The connectedness of natural systems is tough to get your head around. Especially when you can make more money by refusing to understand. Atlanta's endlessly replicating suburbs and shopping centers yield big profit for builders. If that means the flow from Lake Lanier into the Chattahoochee and then down to the Apalachicola is much less, well, that's business. Lawns beat oysters.

The farmers along the Flint River want to irrigate their fields with a lavishness that ignores any other possible use for the water. Peanuts beat tupelo trees. As for the Army Corps of Engineers, the dredge-and-dam-happy federal behemoth still stuck in the era of barge traffic, the Corps is the big, clanging monkey wrench in the works of the Apalachicola ecosystem, refusing to recognize that the three rivers, from the foothills of the Smokey Mountains, the surrounding streams, the marshes, the flood plain, the estuary and the near-shore gulf down to Tampa Bay, are botanically, biologically, hydrologically, geologically interdependent.

"River systems are complicated," says Dan Tonsmeire. "The Corps doesn't like complicated. They like straight lines and 90-degree corners, blocks and squares." Veteran environmental lawyer David Guest, who has tangled with the Corps in the past, is less kind: "The Corps regards rivers as giant sewage pipes."

So why didn't the state of Florida sue the Corps while it was taking Georgia to court? The attorney general says they couldn't: The Corps has "sovereign immunity" in this instance. They can — and do — throw their considerable weight around and, like Georgia, favor consumption over conservation. The Corps is not interested in the beekeepers of Wewahitchka or the hunter-gatherers of Eastpoint and Carrabelle who harvest the oysters. The Apalachicola's best hope now is that the U.S. Supreme Court will order the Corps to do the right thing by the Apalachicola. As Guest puts it, "The Supreme Court shouldn't let the Corps act like King George III. We had a revolution about that."

The fact is, as Dan Tonsmeire says: "The science tells us there's enough water for everybody. We just have to do a better job of sharing it."

Perhaps the farmers, the developers, and the rigid thinkers of the Corps need to take a trip on the river, see the birds, the fish, the trees, the bees, and eat a fat oyster from the bay. Perhaps then they might understand the special alchemy of the Apalachicola.

Diane Roberts, author of "Dream State," a memoir of Florida, teaches at Florida State University. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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Column: A trip down the Apalachicola shows a natural river fighting for its life in a war over water