When I first arrived in Panama City, Florida some 22 years ago now, Apalachicola was one of the first little nearby towns I visited. The place was kind of famous, according to legend, and I couldn’t find any locals who didn’t highly recommend it as an enjoyable day excursion. So I went.
There’s something about the salt air that I truly think is good for the human soul. I have a friend who swears by it, even getting a little surly when she can’t get her fix of the salty elixir. But beyond that, Apalachicola just makes me feel happy in lots of different ways. It’s small town USA. The streets are bright with sunshine, and the whole place has managed to keep its down home vibe, with nothing but small Mom and Pop shops, lots of great restaurants, and plenty of maritime culture and American history to soak up, whichever way you turn. I’ve been to this fantastic little place numerous times, both with friends and family, and always leave with the feeling that it won’t be too long before I go back.
So, it’s a bit of a concern to know that Apalachicola has been hit really hard on a couple of different fronts. If you read the paragraph down at the bottom of the free posters they give away, showing the river and the bay from satellite height (one hangs on the wall of my home because I really like the way it looks), you’ll discover that it is one of the most important estuaries in the southeast United States. And for generations, the place has been home to some of the best seafood you’ll ever taste for hundreds of miles around. Apalachicola Bay is home to blue crabs, shrimp, numerous kinds of saltwater fish, and of course…those famous bay oysters (this bay supplies 10 percent of the nation’s supply, and there are thousands of jobs that depend on the success of the oyster).
Their annual seafood festival is something to experience. I had never seen so many oysters in all my life. The vendors serve them up a dozen different ways, and all of them delicious. Baked on the grill with some parmesan cheese, hot sauce, butter and lemon juice…oh, my mouth is watering just thinking about it.
So the part that’s disheartening is the fact that the oystermen haven’t had the kind of catches they did in times past for years now. The seafood festival I went to was twenty years ago. I hear it hasn’t been the same for quite a long while. It’s hard to determine just what the cause is, and there seem to be several factors involved. Although some would say it comes down to drought and drought only, others maintain that the real cause behind the oyster shortages has everything to do with river flow, and that means Georgia is to blame.
This water feud has been going on for decades now. Florida claims that Georgia needs to loosen its grip on the spigot that controls the flow of water downstream. Oh, if it were only that easy.
You have to go way back to the late 1930s, when the Army Corps of Engineers (they seem to be behind a lot of the troubles that are caused by water) proposed the construction of a dam in northern Georgia, to provide water for nearby Atlanta, as well as to control flooding, and a host of other reasons that sounded good at the time. Buford Dam was finished in 1957, with Lake Lanier created as a result. Of course, nobody knew that nearby Atlanta would become the water-starved metropolis that it now is, gobbling up every available drop it can get its hands on. (P.S. I lived in Atlanta for two God-forsaken years. Why anybody would want to do that to their soul is beyond me, although I guess traffic gridlock for hours on end may be a charming way of life for some. Take my advice…visit often, but live somewhere else).
The problem started way back when, after the Corps authorized that the water used for the hydroelectric component of the dam be diverted, instead, to supply Atlanta residents with more drinking water. Alabama immediately cried foul, filing a lawsuit against Georgia and the Corps. Florida wasn’t far behind. When you start depriving citizens of the water they’ve come to expect, trouble’s bound to ensue. That goes double for people whose livelihoods depend on it. The Apalachicola River supplies 35% of the fresh water that flows into the eastern portion of the Gulf of Mexico, and is critical for maintaining proper salinity of the waters in the bay. When things get too salty, oysters don’t grow, and people don’t eat.
All parties decided to settle down a bit and try to reach favorable agreements for all concerned. The devil’s in the details, of course, and there’s two sides to every story (although there’s three in this case who can’t play nice together). A couple of compacts were the result, but these didn’t last for long, and everybody climbed back in the saddle, ready to kick things up to the next legal level.
From there, the story just gets very litigious, I’m afraid, and I’m not adept at making good drama out of lawsuits and arbitration that just drag on and on. Things have been mired down for a while, with big players in Florida, like Senators Rubio and Nelson, and Governor Scott all weighing in for Florida. Meanwhile, the oyster industry has been recognized as “in collapse,” with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently issuing a fishery disaster over oysters.
Essentially, there’s been trouble over water in some aspect or another between these three states for nearly a quarter of a century now, and a happy compromise seems nowhere to be found. Maybe the Supreme Court justices can throw the hammer down.
Several conclusions can be drawn, and you’ll probably make most of the same ones I have. Population growth continues to strain the nation’s natural resources (Atlanta is the nation’s ninth most populous city, and with no slowdown in sight). Water is, of course, one of the most important natural resources we have, along with every other nation on the planet, and how precious we are finding it to be these days.
In the meantime, I’ve known some families, either directly, or through friends, who have decided to walk away from the oyster and fishing industries after making their living on the water going generations back. That’s a tough call, and another piece of Americana that’s slipping away. Apalachicola’s economy depends heavily on the bay to stay open for business. But people have decided to call it quits, with some long-time restaurants, distributors, and other supply-chain interests shuttering their doors for good.
We can always hope things get better, but, at least for now, the once-thriving Apalachicola Bay is just a shell of its former self.
Check out these other related posts, and sincere thanks for stopping by!