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Sea level rise could erase gains Florida seeks in water war: New federal research

David Pendered
sea level rise, apalachicola docks

By David Pendered

Sea level rise that a federal program predicts will inundate land far inland of Apalachicola Bay by 2060 could wipe away gains Florida hopes to gain in its water war with Georgia.

sea level rise, apalachicola docks

The town of Apalachicola, Fla. and these docks, near the mouth of the Apalachicola River, would not be inundated by a 2-foot rise in sea level that’s predicted in the area by 2060 by scientists working for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Credit: David Pendered. 2012

Florida wants Georgia to release more water into Florida. A shortage of water flow from Georgia into Florida harms the bay’s health, oysters and fishery-dependent communities, Florida argues in its lawsuit against Georgia pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. A ruling is expected before June 30.

Now, scientists overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior are offering scenarios that show rising sea levels pushing far north and east of the bay – well up the Apalachicola River and well east of Jackson River, all the way into Searcy Creek.

The report does not predict specific consequences of the inundation. This is what the report does say about a sea level rise in the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve:

  • “SLR [sea level rise] is expected to lead to more nuisance flooding and increased saltwater intrusion, which may transform many of the NERR’s coastal ecosystems.
  • “Under higher SLR scenarios, some ecosystems may be lost, while others may move upslope at the expense of less flood- or salt-tolerant ecosystems.
  • “As a result, SLR has the potential to greatly impact the Apalachicola NERR and its ability to fulfill its mission.”
sea level rise, apalachicola

The upper image shows current water levels at Florida’s Apalachicola National Esturarine Research Reserve. The lower image shows a light blue color where a 2-foot rise in sea level would flood the land. Credit: coast.noaa.gov

The mission of the reserve is to conserve, protect and restore 12,000 acres of lands and waters spread across the Florida Panhandle’s southernmost coast, in Gulf and Franklin counties.

The predictions were compiled by investigators supported by the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center. The center is one of eight regional centers, all of which are housed within the Department of Interior. Established by Congress in 2008, the centers’ mission includes, “the development of science and tools to help managers address the impacts of climate change on the Nation’s land, water, fish, wildlife, and cultural heritage resources.”

The Apalachicola estuarine reserve is predicted to be especially vulnerable to sea level rise – 22 percent greater than the global average, according to the report. The same is true for a barrier island that helps form the bay’s eastern edge and is home to St. Vincent Wildlife Refuge.

This scenario is slightly worse than for federal land to the east – the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, located south of Tallahassee, Fla. Here, the rise is forecast to be just 20 percent greater than the global average. But the predicted outcome is the same: “some ecosystems may be lost.”

sea level rise, apalachicola fish camp

Fish camps located along Searcy Creek, a tributary of the Apalachicola River, would be inundated by a 2-foot rise in sea level that’s predicted by scientists working for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Credit: David Pendered. 2012

A 2-foot rise in sea level in this area is just above the intermediate scenario of 1.7 feet by 2060. The map NOAA provides shows increases in 1-foot increments. The other scenarios for 2060 include: Low – 0.8 feet; high – 3.3 feet; extreme – 3.9 feet.

The research findings were announced Dec. 18, 2019. The material arrived too late for a federal judge to consider it in his review of the lawsuit Florida filed against Georgia. On Dec. 11, 2019 the judge issued a report in favor of Georgia, finding that Florida had not prevailed with its argument that Apalachicola Bay and its oysters would benefit from more water flowing into the Apalachicola River from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers.

The court is not required to follow the recommendation of U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Kelly, Jr., who acted as a special master with the job of reviewing evidence and making a recommendation to justices.

Kelly summed up Florida’s argument:

sea level rise, St Marks NWR

The upper image shows current water levels at Florida’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The lower image shows a light blue color where a 2-foot rise in sea level would flood the land. Credit: coast.noaa.gov

  • “Florida claims the following regarding the oyster collapse. As a consequence of the persistent low flows in the Apalachicola River, freshwater flows were inad-equate to dilute the seawater in the Bay and to provide nutrients needed at the base of the food chain. In addition to these direct nutrient and salinity effects, increased salinity allowed saltwater predators to flourish, and those predators greatly reduced the oyster population.”

In recommending in favor of Georgia, Kelly’s report concluded:

  • “I do not recommend that the Supreme Court grant Florida’s request for a decree equitably apportioning the waters of the ACF Basin because the evidence has not shown harm to Florida caused by Georgia; the evidence has shown that Georgia’s water use is reasonable; and the evidence has not shown that the benefits of apportionment would substantially outweigh the potential harms.”


sea level, apalachicola, fishing boat

A commercial fishing boat leaves a dock in Apalachicola, Fla., headed out toward Apalachicola Bay two weeks after Hurricane Michael came ashore on Oct. 10, 2018. Credit: David Pendered. 2018


David Pendered
David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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