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'Forgotten Coast': A drought, a bay and a way of life threatened

  • Story Highlights
  • Record drought in Southeast has created competition for Apalachicola River water
  • Apalachicola is located where freshwater and saltwater converge in delicate balance
  • In Florida, water shortage threatens mussel, sturgeon, oysters
  • Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to hold a prayer service Tuesday asking God for rain
  • Next Article in U.S. »
From John Zarrella and Patrick Oppmann
CNN
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APALACHICOLA, Florida -- It's called the "Forgotten Coast," a sleepy stretch of Florida's Panhandle that is the heart of the state's oyster industry.

A decrease in freshwater in Florida's Apalachicola River has made work difficult for people in the oyster industry.

But residents fear their industry and their way of life may soon be a memory.

"Sad to say I'll probably be the last generation in my family who will do this," said Eugene King, who hails from a family who has harvested oysters here for four generations.

The problem is water and the lack of it.

Apalachicola is located at the meeting of freshwater rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. The combination of freshwater and saltwater creates a unique environment, an estuary where species as diverse as oysters and Tupelo honeybees flourish. Video Watch how the water wars affect oystermen »

But a record drought in the Southeast has created fierce competition for the river water.

In Atlanta, Georgia, the drought has forced residents to cut down on water usage and on Tuesday led Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to hold a prayer service asking God for rain. Photo See evidence that Atlanta's reservoir is drying up »

Perdue has previously said the debate is over who needs the water more: Georgia families or Florida wildlife. In Florida the lack of water threatens wildlife like an endangered variety of mussel and sturgeon. Learn more about the Southeast water dispute »

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which determines how much water is sent via river, is bound by the Endangered Species Act to ensure that protected wildlife receive enough water for their survival.

The Georgia governor, however, has pressed the corps and federal government for more water.

On the same day that Perdue prayed for rain, men and women on small skiffs dotting the Apalachicola Bay worked the oyster beds.

They pulled them up a few dozen at a time using a long tool that looks like two rakes nailed together to scoop the oysters from the shallow water.

The oysters are then sorted, the ones that are too small thrown back and the larger ones are opened with a few whacks from a mallet.

Its difficult work that pays little, a group of oystermen told a CNN crew from their boats. And lately it has become much harder.

"There's a lack of freshwater to break the salinity down," said John Richards, a fifth-generation oysterman and head of the local seafood workers union. "If they can survive, we have a good crop coming on, but the salinity is too great."

Richards says more and more oyster beds are vanishing. He sees more harvested oysters that are dead. There has been an explosion in predators like conch that feed on oysters.

All are signs that the delicate balance between freshwater and saltwater has been thrown off says Dan Tonsmiere of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, a local group that monitors the environment and advocates against decreasing the flow of freshwater to the area.

"Without the river flood plain functioning as it has the bay will never recover "Tonsmiere said. "It cannot sustain these extended periods of droughts that are a result not just of the drought but because of those water withdrawals that are making the droughts longer and more sustained than they would be naturally"

Although scientists do not know how long it will take for the environmental damage to become irreversible in Apalachicola, state officials recently warned against an agreement between Alabama, Georgia and Florida that would have reduced water to the area.

The reductions, Florida Department of Environmental Protection head Michael Sole wrote, "would not only precipitate a catastrophic collapse of the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay but also displace the entire economy of the Bay region."

Any permanent damage to the seafood industry could be felt widely.

According to the Department of Environmental Protection the area seafood business brings in more than $130 million a year. Ten percent of the nation's oysters come from the Apalachicola area, the department said.

But it's about much more than a loss of dollars and wildlife to oyster harvester Chris Golden.

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People in Florida are being hurt too by the lack of water, he said.

"Most of us growed up doing this," Golden said "That's all we want to do really. That's all we know." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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