From Poster Child to Role Model? Hope in the ACF Basin

Add a little bit of body textDid you feel it last week? Rumbling like a distant earthquake, it crossed three state lines but didn’t make the national news. It was huge.

A group of 56 people representing stakeholder organizations from Georgia, Alabama and Florida agreed on a sustainable management plan for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River (ACF) Basin. This is the same ACF Basin that is the poster child for southeast water basin conflict for over twenty years. This is the same basin that has an ongoing Supreme Court case.

What is even more remarkable is that this stakeholder group called the ACF Stakeholders,

  • represents over 14 interest groups,
  • raised over 1.7 million dollars of private financial support, and
  • is operated by consensus only. What does this mean? Consensus means any person could say no and stop the process of developing a plan. Imagine getting a group of 56 people to agree on anything.

I could not be happier on a personal and professional level. As a disclaimer, I usually don’t write about projects that I have been involved with, but this one is a worthy exception. For the past four years, I have been part of a team assisting this stakeholder organization. I traveled throughout the basin, met fantastic people from all sorts of backgrounds, and helped with something bigger than myself. This is why I chose to be an engineer.

Enjoying some Apalachicola Bay Oysters
Enjoying some Apalachicola Bay Oysters

The Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers are like siblings that are joined together in a three-legged race. You have the mighty Chattahoochee River enhanced with 14 main-stem dams that can dictate river flow at certain times. You have the quiet Flint River who is as long as the Chattahoochee, but without any controlling reservoirs. Together they form the Apalachicola River that flows over 100 miles through Florida into Apalachicola Bay. 75% of the basin is in Georgia with the rest split between Alabama and Florida.

So what is this Sustainable Water Management Plan? The plan involved developing a common, scientifically valid understanding of the ACF Basin by documenting the needs and concerns of different stakeholder groups and geographic areas. It also involved modeling river and reservoir responses under different scenarios and even conducting hydrodynamic modeling of the bay to investigate the effects of river discharge on bay salinity. ACFS members were then able to gain a better understanding of the basin, including the Apalachicola Bay, and understand better the gaps in scientific and technical knowledge.

The major recommendations in the Plan include the following:

  1. Alabama, Florida, and Georgia should collaboratively establish a transboundary water management institution to serve as a data clearinghouse; facilitate coordination, consensus building and conflict resolution; and support development of basin-level water management plans.
  2. Each state should pursue and achieve sustainable water use and return policies. Water users throughout the basin should identify and implement conservation measures and water efficient policies. Tracking and reporting is critical to achieve actual improvements.
  3. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should consider adopting the following, as a package of changes, to its management of the ACF reservoirs to utilize storage more efficiently during ordinary conditions, mitigate drought impacts, and promptly restore conditions after droughts. The suggested changes include: a. Raise the winter pool 4.5 feet at West Point Lake to increase water storage that can be used to provide benefits basin-wide. b. Define new zones to coincide with the USACE reservoir recreational impact zones and then only release water from an upstream reservoir when the downstream reservoir is in a lower zone. c. Adjust hydropower release requirements to achieve more operational flexibility with respect to other water uses. d. Provide two pulsed releases – in May and July – timed to support environmental flow requirements, improved navigation conditions in the Apalachicola River, and salinity regimes favorable to oysters in the Apalachicola Bay.
  4. The Army Corps of Engineers should study and, if feasible, implement a 2-foot increase in the pool level at Lake Lanier, increasing water storage by 7 percent, to the benefit of all users in the basin.
  5. Local, state and federal decision makers should develop consistent drought management plans that define drought conditions, identify drought response triggers, delineates responsibilities of various water use sectors and documents changes in operational strategies in response to drought conditions. ACFS further encourages USACE to incorporate predictive drought indicators into the pending revision of the Water Control Manual.
  6. Various state and federal agencies should develop more and more consistent information about the river basin and bay to promote better decision making in the future. ACFS encountered challenging gaps in scientific and technical information on the basin during the course of its work and suggests a specific list of studies that, if completed, would support better decision-making in the future.

Groups, like ACF Stakeholders, bring hope that the Supreme Court does not have to settle all water challenges. These stakeholders devoted an incredible amount of hours to this effort. I would love to see this basin be the lighthouse for others in the Southeast.

Read more about the plan here.