Steve Leitman, Environmental Scientist, NW FL Water Management District (talking with Joshua Azriel)
Azriel - How many years have you worked for them?
Leitman - Iíve worked for the district for the last six years, but Iíve worked on this issue for the last 24 years including for about four or five years when I worked with Florida Defenders of the environment as the Apalachicola river coordinator.
Azriel - Okay, and tell me a little bit about what the Florida Defenders of the Environment does.
Leitman - FDOE is a non-profit environmental group based out of Gainesville and was originally an organization that was a group of University of Florida professors opposing the construction of the cross-Florida barge canal, so it was an interdisciplinary group which really focused on bringing technical information and challenging technical information in decisions by the government.
Azriel - Well first, what are your thoughts about the agreement between the three states regarding the Appalchicola, the Chattahootche and Flint rivers?
Leitman - Okay there are several things we need to think about regarding this agreement. First, its fairly monumental in several ways, first of all this is the first river basin commission created in the southeast portion in the United States and the first since passage of the clean water act in the Ď70ís and so this was created in a completed different context than other river basins such as the Potomac, or the Delaware river which currently exists on some of the planning commissions. Another important thing to realize with this larger agreement is that in this river basin we are trying g to deal with issues when the ecological integrity of both the Apalachicola river and Apalachicola bay are still intact, so its this trying to deal with things before the fact instead of after the fact, its proactive instead of reactive. And when you take a proactive approach its cheaper, you have more options and probably have better results and so if we look at the problems I think looking at the overall issues is that people should be commended for dealing with this issue so early.
Azriel - What do you think the most important function of the committee that will be organized from it?
Leitman - Well, in the short term the most important function is defining a water allocation formula which when we created the compact legislation, we purposely left out the formal so that it could be defined by the committee and the reason for this is that we have to take more of an adaptive approach and you have to be able to learn and amend such agreements and experience has shown that in agreements when you write it into the agreements, itís a direct ticket to the Supreme Court because their will be errors. A good example of an error is in the Colorado River where they allocated about 140 - 150 percent of the riverís flow and naturally the upstream states thought theyíd get thereís and that meant the downstream states didnít get theirs and everyone ended up suing each other and so by setting up to have the commission define the formula and be able to amend the formula instead of writing to the legislation at least you make this concept of adaptive measurement possible. In the long term though the important thing will be whether theyíll be able to take this adaptive approach, Itís the whole idea of whether theyíre going to be able to do research monitoring, learn, amend and live with the system or whether theyíre just going to try and fix something.
Azriel - What was it about the allocation amongst the three states in the first place that needed to have this set up?
Leitman - Well, from a larger perspective first of all, if you look at the Federal laws thereís, we have a clean water act which at least sets up standards of how to deal with water quality although sometimes itís not done to the satisfaction. At least thereís Federal legislation that allows it, whereas from a quantity aspect you really donít have system wide standards for dealing with quantity of flow and so I would say thatís a pretty important aspect of it. And itís important when you look at Apalachicola river, Apalachicola bay that you realize the real drive that makes everything work is flow in terms of the flow plain itís the extent and duration of flow and in terms of the estuary the salinity regime is really the important driving function that defines the whole Eco-system so the salinity rege is defined by the Apalachicola river which in turn is the flow of the river.
Azriel - What is the salinity regime?
Thatís, when I talk about salinity regime or flow regime Iím speaking of the concept that over the course of the year the Apalachicola river flow will vary eight to ten fold in a typical year and between, from year to year youíll get variation. And what this results in is a pulsing of salinity, you donít have a constant salinity level in the estuary, but you have a changing salinity , and a lot of the species that live there in fact all of them are adapted t this concept of change both in terms of the elevation of flow or the flood plain being flooded sometimes, being dry sometimes and the estuary of pulsing salinity regimes. In fact if you looked at oysters for example, youíll l find that much of the diseases associated with oysters are marine in origin, which means if you have this pulsing regime youíre constantly pushing the marine uh, antagonists away from the system.
Azriel - Interesting. Uh, for the listener who really doesnít know a lot about how rivers are connected, um, how the activities in one state can affect things downstream, what do you think the danger is right now, the potential dangers are right now to the Apalachicola River?
Leitman - Well, the Apalachicola river is roughly a 20-thousand square mile drainage basin and if you look at that basin and divide t state to state youíll see that about 75 percent of that drainage basin lies in Georgia, about 12 and a half or one-eighth lies in Alabama and a similar one-eight lies in Florida, so a flow is sor rivers that lie along Georgia and Alabama, one of them is the flint one of them is the Chattahootche, and these two rivers are very different in nature. The Chattahootchee River is fed mostly by overland flow and the Chattahootchee River is fairly highly regulated up in the upper parts of the basin. We have Lake Lanier which has roughly 75 percent of the storage, two thirds of the storage excuse me in the basin and it impounds 10 percent which means the river is highly regulated up by Atlanta but when you get down toward the lower part you have fewer reservoirs greater drainage area and its not so regulated. So the Flint is an impoundment system with service overflow, I mean the Chattahoochee, the Flint in contrasts flows through a carst area and has a large groundwater inflow from springs and such. And that means the flow during low flow naturally is more constant because it had this ground water influx that was happening and in the Chattahoochee basin we large withdrawals happening from metropolitan Atlanta you have cities of Columbus, you have reservoirs. In the Flint Basin you don't have the large municipal withdrawals but what you do have is agricultural irrigation which has grown tremendously since the 70s and so and they mostly irrigate from shallow ground water wells and you set up pivot type systems and the result is although its a really robust aquifer that seasonally especially during dry years were dropping down the aquifer and that in turn causes loss of flow into the Flint or from the Flint back to the aquifers in extreme cases. And that consequently both of those could be effecting flow in the river in the flow regime.
Azriel - Isn't Lake Lanier a man made lake?
Leitman - Yes.
Azriel - Do you know when it was built?
Leitman - It was built in the 50s. There's roughly 15 reservoirs in the basin and only 4 of them have storage and the storage type of reservoirs, there's two types, one of them will have storage which means they can hold water and release it on schedule and then a number of them around the city of Columbus which is at the fall line coming from the Piedmont to the coastal plain ah those are power type reservoirs where flow in equals flow out so although they effect locally they're not altering the flow.
Azriel - How does the Apalachicola River compare with other rivers in Florida.
Leitman - In terms of flow, the Apalachicola is by far the biggest river in Florida. Its average annual flow is three times that of the Suwannee River which is the next biggest in terms of flow so its discharge is really large and if you get into flood stage you can get over a 100,000 cubic feet per second flowing down which translates roughly into15 billion gallons per day and so there's a lot of water coming down that river.
Azriel - How does it compare with its biological diversity?
Leitman - Uh, the Apalachicola River is a very diverse river. There's a number of reasons one of them being because its water shed extends far up into Georgia that it gets biotic influences from the Appalachian mountains from the Piedmont and from the coastal plain. And then its location is one that causes a really diverse biological community because its getting biological influences from both the Atlantic and the Gulf coastal plains from peninsular Florida from the Piedmont and from the Appalachians and so you have all these five bio regions throwing influence into this one area and the result is a very diverse ecosystem.
Azriel - What dangers does growth around Apalachicola pose to the rivers and its tributaries and the bay?
Leitman - The danger you would have would be is that the introduction of if you have a lot of places with septic tanks. Septic tanks, the way Florida's septic tanks law works is first of all they're not concerned with system effects they're concerned whether each additional one will drain and its not the issue if we have too many individual ones draining what happens. And being able to trace the effects of each one individually and say which house throws you over the where you start to have the problem is the question and then its also that there are important nursery areas that could lie near the shore. Now one of the things it has going for it is it is a well flushed bay, its not like say neighboring Saint Joe Bay which has slow flushing time because there's only one inlet and outlet whereas the multiple inlets in the large flow and large amount of water flowing through it there's a flushing so things do get flushed out of there.
Azriel - Is there a danger that development will grow and grow?
Leitman - Oh absolutely there's a development, it's a region that has tended to have a fairly depressed economy. Sea food landings fluctuate from year to year to year and you have people definitely sort of buying out the historical culture and going in and putting in a new culture which is more tourism oriented.
Azriel - Do you know how much of the land is federally or state owned which cannot be developed?
Leitman - There's uh extensive amount of land has been purchased by the government. If you start first at the estuary and look at the islands there's a large chunk starting from east to west. Dog island, the nature conservancy owns a large tract of land on Dog Island which is zoned just for conservation and then coming to the next part you have on both ends of St. George island you have a park on the east end on the west end you have little St. George island which used to be part of St. George island they put sykes cut in is state property. And then the next island over, St. Vincent, is a federal reserve. So a majority of the barrier island system is in conservationís lands. Then when you start looking around the bay there's a lot of land which has been purchased for CARL - Conservation and Recreation Lands - environmentally endangered lands programs years ago and then the NW Florida Water Management District has also been purchasing extensive lands in the Saver Our Rivers program. And so the end result is I think 120, 130 thousand acres of lands either flood plain, barrier island or marsh estuarine lands have been purchased to try and provide buffers from development.
Azriel - Tell me about some of the marine life besides the oysters.
Leitman - Well in the estuary you have three types of shrimp and its also a very important nursery grounds for the Gulf of Mexico so when you look at value of these estuaries sometimes we get misled because if we look at just county landings but if its nursery grounds there's a lot of species that this is where they grow up but when they're harvested, caught, it could be out in the Gulf of Mexico and landed wherever and its also important for a blue crab and if you go up the river there's also sturgeon, the Atlantic sturgeon, and we have special Gulf race of strip bass as well as hybrid bass as well as a number of other species and then there's the number of clams that are pretty significant.
Azriel - How does the river help in raising the Tupelo honey?
Leitman - Honey is a big product in the Apalachicola basin you know the most noted is the Tupelo and there's an extensive, its because of the flood plain, Tupelo is a flood plain tree it likes it wet and there's broad Tupelo forests in the lower part of the river which allows for the harvesting of Tupelo honey, which is one of the better honeys you'll ever run into. And with the protection of these lands by the state, the state allows the bee keepers to go in there and set their hives and pull in the honey and then leave and so this means of sustainment of this industry.
Azriel - With the land that is controlled by the state and the development and seasonal tourism, what kind of balanced will be struck do you think?
Leitman - Well the amount of land you can actually develop either in Apalachicola or on the island is quite limited really and where the balance would be that's a hard one to say. You're going to find they run into the problem with a lot of wet area with a lot of public lands and all. I think you're going to see land prices getting higher and higher there and I think you're going to find a balance but one of the things I think you'll find in this balance I fear is with the increasing land prices, the increasing cost of living that you're going to have a transition of the culture and so that the original inhabitants are going to get displaced or the original culture.
Azriel - Do you work with the economy of the Apalachicola area?
Leitman - Years ago I used to be more involved with that, but my work presently has been very much tied to this interstate negotiations and dealing with the water and that has been such, there's only so much you can do and really know about.
Azriel - I understand a lot of the tourists come from Georgia, should residents in Florida be concerned with the development up in Atlanta and how it could affect the waters?
Leitman - I think that you know more than development in Atlanta, I would say development in Georgia...
Azriel - In general
Leitman - is a question that what's the sum or what's the cumulative effect of all the actions that are going to be happening up stream and how they are going to reflect the flow regime 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now and it gets down to is are what we going to be able to really pass on our cultural heritage to our children to their children to their children passing it on for generations or are we going to keep eroding away at the flow regime.
Azriel - Where does a danger lie?
Leitman - OK well you're seeing tremendous growth by metro Atlanta and huge population increases and really no efforts within Atlanta area visible to me of constraining the growth, they are in a lets grow mentality and at the same time you have a lot of other demands you know going down the Chattahoochee River at Columbus you have industrial demands industrial uses and then you have the storage reservoirs and they have let people build around these reservoirs and a good example of what can happen with this is this is at Lake Lanier that has roughly two thirds of the storage capability in the basin but unfortunately it is located in the upper part of the basin so consequently that means if they drain down their storage it takes longer to refill because of the amount of area they can gather rainfall to refill. But the other thing they've done is in having people live around it, people who live around reservoirs tend to be wealthy, they tend to have influence and they tend to not like the idea of seeing their reservoir fluctuate 36 feet. They'd like to have a dock, they like to go out in the evening when they go out boating and not have a mud flap but have the water. But consequently although Lanier, Lake Lanier, is set up to be managed to fluctuate 35 feet if it changes 4 feet the people around it are screaming saying you can't lower it anymore. And so a lot of this management capability that was paid for by tax payer money really has turned around to become lake front capability for the residents of the area and the more you have the city of Atlanta taking demands of water supply both from the lake and from the river itself the less water that's available from the downstream uses.
Azriel - Going back to the commission and its creation, how many years was this in the works?
Leitman - That depends on you define the start of it.
Azriel - Give me your interpretation of it.
Leitman - My interpretation is this has been going on for 15 years and there were several false starts on the idea of how do we get this grip on system wide management and each false start whether or not it resulted in us getting there, there was information and things we were learning so the next time we got into the game we would be able to do better. This most recent round started in 1989 1990 when the city of Atlanta came forward and said they wanted to reallocate water from Lake Lanier from hydropower which would essentially get released for downstream uses to water supply which would be held for water supply for metro Atlanta drinking water and at the same time while doing this environmental impact statement because it was a federal action required by the corps of engineers they came forward and said they were going to release new reservoir manual, reservoir water control plans which would define how they actually manage the reservoirs instead of how they are supposed to under in their older water control plans. And the end result of this information coming out was a law suit saying that the environmental impact statement was inadequate and we reached this junction then of do you go to court and demand a good environmental impact statement or do you negotiate for what you really need which is how do we manage water needs from a system wide context. From a Florida standpoint I felt we didn't need a good document I felt what we needed was a grip on how to manage it and so this whole law suit led to a four five year study effort and that was important in the process for several reasons. First of all the parties involved were able to develop joint databases and joint tools so that when we are talking to each other, analyzing each other's approaches we can understand what each other is doing, it provides a common language. A second part that's important in this that's overlooked a lot is that in our society we really do not think from a system context and most people don't and if expect basins such as the Apalachicola River to be managed in a way that very few people think is presumptuous, what this five year period did was it allowed this development of a mentality or a consciousness in the basin where people could start seeing it more as a whole system. When you go and to meeting that has a broad variety of stake holders and you listen to them talk now and compare it to what he heard 6 years ago, its pretty amazing the development and the way people are starting to see things in a different way, its this education and so this is one of those subtle benefits you get in this process.
Azriel - How is Florida treated in the negotiations?
Leitman - I think that we had the rap on us of "Oh they just want to the protect the environment, the birds and the bees, they're the radicals down south" if I was to be honest about it and uh I think that the perception of us was they were the moderates and we were these environmental radicals down south. To this day I still don't see what's so radical about wanting to pass our heritage down to future generations, to me that's the conservative approach not the radical approach.
Azriel - How much of what is in the Gulf is impacted by the Apalachicola River?
Leitman - I don't know how you'd say how much in the Gulf of Mexico. The vast majority of the species in the Gulf of Mexico are what you'd call estuary dependent that doesn't mean they live there all the time but it could be for example they use the estuaries for nursery grounds and its important they have a place for their young to grow up till they reach an age they can survive out in the open Gulf, or that they're not preyed upon so by other species so easily and so I think the number I've seen is like 95 or 98 percent of the species in the Gulf of Mexico are estuarine dependent meaning they spend some part of their life cycle. Now taking that...
Azriel - Spend part of their life cycle...
Leitman - In an estuary
Azriel - OK
Leitman - such as the Apalachicola, an estuary being an area, a semi closed area where fresh and salt water meet. But to say what percentage in the Gulf of Mexico I don't know how I'd you a number, any number that you put with that I think is grab of the sky.
Azriel - Let me try this question from a different point of view. What goes into the Gulf of Mexico from the Apalachicola River any more special than any other estuaries?
Leitman - I think that you find because you have a large river that Apalachicola is extremely productivity per unit area basis because its sort of a custom designed estuary. You have the barrier islands which are trapping the nutrients trapping the fresh water to create the salinity regime and provide the protective area and you've got this large river coming in and the Mississippi and the Mobile are the only ones of the Alabama river are the only ones larger I can think of off hand going down across the Gulf and so you've got this ideal set up for productivity.
Azriel - Are there issues that other Gulf states can learn off this issue?
Leitman - I would think that nationally there's issues that can be learned from this experience you know not just in the Gulf of Mexico because this idea of approaching management of a river from a system wide context how do you get there, how do you involve it, and this whole post federal environmental acts in this whole era of how do we approach dealing with river basin system management is a difficult question. And how do we involve you involve people to do it appropriately, how do we deal with the technical information with the computer capabilities we have now because even ten years ago that capacity to do, to look at information, to simulate systems, to simulate data and more of a technical based decision was nowhere near where it is today. So how do take all this growing bulk of information being developed at UF, FSU, a lot of other places and use it.
Azriel - What is the one thing you would like to tell the listener that makes the Apalachicola River so special?
Leitman - I think what makes it so special is that its a large productive area that hasn't been destroyed by man yet and we are trying to keep it that way. And that if people go see the river or go see the bay you know you'll see a large area that's not over populated that still has a functioning and intact ecosystem. And its got some really nice wild areas on it.