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North Florida's Apalachicola River is declared nation's 'most endangered'

Apalachicola Patrick FarrellOnce one of the most productive estuaries in the world, the Apalachicola River basin, on Tuesday was named "America's Most Endangered River" as damaging water management decisions and increasing demand from the Atlanta metro area have put the river basin at "the breaking point."

That is the conclusion of American Rivers, a national advocacy organization that every year determines which waterways are at a pivotal crossroad.

For the Apalachicola, the river basin fed by the Chattahochee and Flint Rivers of Alabama and Georgia, its water flow has been strained to the danger point by increasing demands from Georgia water users, including the City of Atlanta south.

Apalachicola Bay once produced 90 percent of Florida's oysters but in 2012 collapsed due to inadequate fresh water flows. A drought in 2013 weakened conditions even more and the result has forced fishing families to leave the area as offshore hatcheries, shrimp and oyster beds have been damaged.

Now American Rivers, joined by environmental groups from Georgia, Alabama and Florida as well as U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and state Sen. Bill Montford, are calling on the governors of the three states to act quickly to develop a water-sharing agreement that gives a priority to the health of the river basin. They also want the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls how much water from the rivers are used for drinking, hydropower, flood control and fish and wildlife conservation, to "significantly improve water management to sustain river health."

"We can't survive as a fishing village. Our industry can't survive,'' said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association. "We are one of the last working bays that's productive."

Montford, D-Tallahassee, a fifth generation Floridian, said it was time to "reverse the damage" with a new cooperation between the states. "We are on the verge of losing one of god's greatest gifts,'' he said.

The State of Florida is suing the State of Georgia over its failure to safely manage the water flow and the lawsuit is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Graham, D-Tallahassee, has proposed the Apalachicola Restoration Act to require the Army Corps of Engineers to change its water policy rules to prevent continued ecological destruction of the river basin. The pending legislation has the support of 21 of the Florida's 29-member delegation but has not been agreed to by Georgia of Alabama lawmakers.

Graham said the loss of the river basin will have a ripple effect on the economy across the country.

"As leaders of our country we must put aside politics and do what is right for the people of all states involved,'' she said. "We can help future generations of fishermen and families across North Florida, and preserve this nation treasure. We must do that."