They have picked up a gauntlet from the late Herman Jones and turned it into a rallying cry.
And, in doing so, they are taking on the “gorilla in the room” to restore and save two once-dynamic ecosystems now under threat.
BAYSAVERS members describe their organization as a group of “non-political, practical-minded collection of individuals who care deeply about the environmental and economic future of this unique part of Florida.”
The group’s particular focus is Apalachicola Bay, St. Joseph Bay and Lake Wimico, ecosystems joined together nearly eight decades ago to boost an economy with the environmental and economic tab growing with each passing year.
“We have a very, very serious problem and we have a unique solution,” said Dusty May, who has become something of the de facto chair and spokesman for BAYSAVERS.
“There are a lot of us that want to save and there are two bays that need to be saved.”
BAYSAVERS held its first public meeting Wednesday at First United Methodist Church of Port St. Joe with a three-fold aim.
“We are trying to introduce our group to the community and we are trying to separate ourselves from the many feel-good environmental groups,” May said. “We are also trying to raise awareness.
“We are taking on the big gorilla in the room and we need every single person in the community to be behind this.”
The seed for the effort was planted by Jones, the longtime local educator, historian and explorer who passed away suddenly last year.
Jones wrote extensively about his belief that that St. Joseph Bay and Apalachicola Bay should be returned to their original state before the digging of the Gulf County Canal which ultimately linked the two bays, the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) and Lake Wimico.
The industrial canal facilitated the growth of the St. Joe Paper Company and for decades fed a region.
And now, Jones believed that link could and should be broken via the construction of a set of locks or gates along the ICW between Lake Wimico and the Gulf County Canal.
“We need to disconnect those ecosystems,” May said.
In very short strokes, the link is killing both all three initially unique ecosystems, BAYSAVERS argues.
During periods of low flow on the Apalachicola, which have become longer and more drastic periods since the 1988 decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to no longer maintain the river to navigational depth, the damage is done to the Apalachicola system.
Those low flows creates a gradient, particularly during high tide events, sustained west winds or tropical weather systems, that allows saltwater from St. Joseph Bay and East Bay to move into the ICW, Lake Wimico and ultimately the Apalachicola River, Bay and marsh.
That has meant “catastrophic” damage to Lake Wimico and the Apalachicola River system, already under siege due to water use to the north in Atlanta and on Georgia farms.
BAYSAVERS contends stopping that flow of saltwater into the Apalachicola system would help restore the oyster bars that thrived decades ago.
Meanwhile, during periods of high river flow, usually during winter and spring, the freshwater from the Apalachicola floodplain, along with its nutrients and sediments are back-flowing into St. Joseph Bay.
That has resulted in turbidity and significant degradation of seagrass beds.
“Salinity comes and goes but sediment stays,” May said, noting there are areas at the head of St. Joseph Bay where sediment is as much as 7-8 feet.
“We have to stop this run-off into St. Joe Bay.”
The World Resources Institute documented in St. Joseph Bay during the 1990s eutrophication and Hypoxia, the build-up in a body of water of nutrients and minerals which results in a lack of oxygen and algae.
During summer months the plume of runoff can be observed in Highland View; May said an appropriate parallel is the “dead zone” at the mouth of the Mississippi, which will be larger this summer than several New England states.
Funding for gates on the ICW, with estimates ranging from $10-$20 million, which May believed was high and came from a single source, is one of two RESTORE Act projects that has been qualified within the RESTORE portal.
Another seeks funding to purchase Lake Wimico and its drainage basin, roughly 75,000 acres, which is currently listed for sale by Deseret Cattle and Timber; Deseret has it listed at $10 million.
May noted the state has spent tens of millions of dollars fighting the Water Wars with Georgia over Apalachicola River flow as well as hundreds of millions attempting to restore the Everglades.
BAYSAVERS members are gathering some of the historic scientific and hydrologic data to demonstrate the science behind their focus, essential to unlocking funding, whether from RESTORE, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and other sources.
BAYSAVERS also hopes to enlist local high school science students in gathering some of data needed linking rain and run-off events.
Some calculations already performed are sobering: with a 20-foot river reading at Blountstown, not atypical, the group estimated 5 billion gallons of freshwater are dumped into St. Joseph Bay every 24 hours and Apalachicola Bay is losing 12-16 percent of river flow.
Whatever the means, and whether the effort is joined by Deseret, St. Joe Company, the Board of County Commissioners, the goal for BAYSAVERS is raising awareness among the grassroots and highest elected offices that time is at hand to save St. Joseph Bay and Apalachicola Bay.
“There is a lot of good going on behind the scenes,” May said. “We just need to raise awareness.
“If we could get those gates they would set the clock back 100 years.”