Some of you may recall my article on the Canal from May of last year. In that article I explained how the freshwater, pesticides, treated sewage, agricultural runoff and urban drainage from upriver is destroying our bay; a bay I have explored, snorkeled, and dived for over 50 years. I do have my school-of -hard knocks credentials.
Now we have a new algae in the bay - one I have not seen or heard of before. It’s been two years since the devastating red tide, and now we have another plague to ruin our summer. I warned of this in my previous article.
For the newcomer of anyone who missed that article, I will explain how the canal came to be and how it disrupts the drainage system of southern Gulf County.
Before Port St. Joe (1909), the bay was as clear and crystal as any Caribbean bay. There are no rivers that enter the bay; only small tidal creeks like Chicken-house Branch at WindMark and Simmon’s Bayou. The only water that entered the bay came from the Gulf in the daily tides: Clean water in and flushed by the outgoing tide. Storms would occasionally stir the bay and torrential rains might slightly stain it, but this was short-term. It was Paradise.
Let me explain the Apalachicola Watershed and how it affects our bay and beaches.
The Chattahoochee River begins in North Georgia in the foothills of the Appalachians. It flows through many large Georgia and Alabama cities: Atlanta and Columbus for example. On its way to the Gulf, the river collects treated sewage, storm water runoff, silt from farming, pesticides, and fertilizers. This chemical soup makes its way to Lake Seminole where it meets up with the Flint River, which forms in Central Georgia. Its main cities are Albany and Bainbridge. Again, it’s the same story and more ingredients for the water. Lake Seminole is formed by the Jim Woodruff Dam at Chattahoochee on the Georgia-Florida line. Thus begins the Apalachicola River.
In the 1800’s, one could depart on a steamboat in Apalachicola and travel as far as Columbus on the Chattahoochee and to Albany on the Flint. Dams, railroads, and bridges ruined those days.
In 1915 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers connected St. Andrews’s Bay (Panama City) to Lake Wimico and the Apalachicola, creating the Intracoastal Waterway. When the St. Joe Paper Mill came in 1938, the all-powerful Ed Ball decided his mill needed a waterway to the Intracoastal to transport fuel and logs to his mill. It was the Depression and no one gave a second thought to the detrimental effects it would have on St. Joseph’s Bay. As if the bay could handle anything, paper mill effluent was dumped straight into the bay and north of the mill; raw sewage from the city entered the bay. You can still see those old terra-cotta pipes at low tide running into the bay. Those two sources are now gone and only the canal remains.
While the canal may be a cut-off for the occasional boater, the small convenience it gives him is nothing compared to the harmful effects of the river water entering the bay.
Before the canals, the Apalachicola ran entirely into Apalachicola Bay. Lake Wimico and its tributaries; Depot Creek, Searcy Creek, and Indian Bayou all flowed to the Apalachicola. With the dredging of the canals, the Apalachicola could now take a westward turn, flow through the Jackson River, then Lake Wimico, then the Intracoastal, and thence through the Gulf Co. Canal to our bay. Depending upon river levels, perhaps 10-20% of the Apalachicola flows into St. Joseph’s Bay. The Apalachicola doesn’t care where it flows, it just wants to meet the Gulf; the easiest route will do. This is water that should be flowing to the beleaguered oyster beds of Apalachicola Bay. In earlier geologic times, the Apalachicola flowed west and formed the east arm of St. Andrew’s Bay and flowed into the Gulf off Panama City.
So, with each falling tide, the bay sucks in zillions of silty, dark Apalachicola water. When the river gets high, like in the winter and spring, it doesn’t need a tide; it just flows with more intensity. Eventually, this water flows westward, along the shore, darkening WindMark Beach, St.Joe Beach, and Mexico Beach: no Emerald Coast standing for these beaches. When there is a constant west wind, like this summer, the wind pushes this dark water eastward, along the Marina and then toward the head of the bay. Ever wonder why you couldn’t see those scallops-- thank the canal.
Old timers, whom I knew as a young man, and are now gone, told me that when they were young men and the canal had not yet been dredged, the bay was as clear and clean as any water they had ever seen. Billy Howell told me you could see a flounder at the end of the A.N.R.R. pier in 18 feet of water.
Two years ago, red tide collapsed the bay and now a different, potentially fatal, algae may do the same. This could be the beginning of a cycle that may not end soon. To end these algae events and get out clear water back; there is a simple solution: PUT A LOCK ON THE INTRACOASTAL!! (a lock is a dam that can be opened when needed for boat or barge traffic). Put it just west of White City, the Lake Wimico and the Apalachicola can resume their natural flow to Apalachicola Bay. Lake Wimico would return to its natural state because the canals have changed the lake. During prolonged droughts, high tides of St. Joseph’s Bay can push salt water into the lake. I know this because of teredo worm (a salt water mollusk) holes in the cypress trees. Imagine what this does to the fresh-water fish. This lake could be another story.
If you drive to the St. Joe Marina or pass over the George Tapper Bridge, look at the dark, Merlot stained waters of our bay, they should be green and crystalline and full of life. Fishing and scalloping would improve and beach property values would increase as clean water and beaches would be the norm. Think about it.