Monthly Archives: October 2012

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Notes From the Field: First cold snap

We had to break out our neoprene waders this week for the first cold snap of the year! The picture doesn’t do it justice, since the sunshine gives a false indication of warmth. Meagan, Ryan, and I shivered our way through setting up 20 plots (out of 80!) for a new marsh experiment.

Thankfully all of the exertion of digging and sieving helped us warm up a bit.  In the process of sieving lots of mud to remove any plant roots and rhizomes, we came across a few interesting items -

1. Many small crown conchs that apparently wanted to avoid the cold, and

2. A few large and interesting (but as yet unidentified) worms that we haven’t seen before. We’ll be out digging again tomorrow and will get a picture of them this time!

Our thoughts go out to everyone dealing with far more than just cold in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

- Randall

RiverTrekkers climb into Means Creek, named for biologist Bruce Means.

Video: RiverTrek 2012 Days 1 & 2

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Part 2 of our RiverTrek adventure is now live. You can watch it here.

RiverTrekkers climb into Means Creek, named for biologist Bruce Means.

IGOR chip- filtration 150The web version of the video, which you see above, has some shots of our impromptu spelunking expedition by Means Creek that were not in the air version.  I was waiting on permission to show our cave adventure, which was in a part of Torreya State Park that we were told will be opened to the public at some point in the future.  I got that permission after last week’s Dimensions had been completed.  You may notice that, for a video about a kayak trip, we spend a lot of time in caves, bushwhacking in the woods, or climbing up bluffs.  None of our off-river excursions were in lands open to the public, but were instead near parklands that were (Means Creek in Torreya and Alum Bluff on The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, near the Garden of Eden Trail).  With those parks in the northern stretch of the river and the Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area in the south, there are ample opportunities to explore the areas adjacent to the river.  Those protected lands are valuable for their ecotourism potential, but they have a indirect value when it comes to the water in the river, in Apalachicola Bay, and into the Gulf of Mexico.

It has to do with clean (or cleaner, anyway) water.  I wrote last week about the Army Corps of Engineers visit to Apalachicola Bay, and the meeting during which various presenters made their case for the why the river needed more water than has been flowing through the Woodruff Dam.  One presentation that left an impression was that of Dr. Felicia Coleman, Director of the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab.  She was showing how the water flowing from the Apalachicola River had positive effects beyond the bay, and she made an interesting contrast.  She was comparing the “green river” plumes from both the Apalachicola and Mississippi Rivers, the two largest North American sources of freshwater in the Gulf.  Along with the fresh water, they contribute chlorophyll and other nutrients.  There is a striking difference in what each river is putting into the Gulf.

“The two sources are quite different, because one is man made, agricultural… excess nutrients are falling into the Gulf” Dr. Coleman said, referring to the Mississippi, “and the other is a natural nutrient base that’s coming into the bay,” referring to the Apalachicola.  The Mississippi River drains 41% of the continental United States, along with considerable nitrogen and phosphorus such as are found in concentrated fertilizers typically used to grow crops and and keep lawns green.  The areas at the mouth of the Mississippi have been heavily developed, so there aren’t the kinds of coastal ecosystems that would filter these nutrients (though as David Kimbro pointed out to me, the sheer volume of runoff from the Mississippi is greater than what these coastal ecosystems could filter).  All of that nitrogen and phosphorous was of course meant to make plants grow, and a farmer can control how fertilizer is applied to get crops to grow how they want and to maximize their yield.  When it runs off of farms and lawns and into the water, you can’t control what plants grow and how fast.  If phytoplankton gets a super dose of nitrogen, its growth can become unchecked and it can suck the oxygen out of water.  Dr. Coleman estimated that the dead zone off of the Mississippi is about the size of New Jersey.

Shrimp boats in Apalachicola, at the very end of RiverTrek 2012.

So, that’s me taking a hike on Alum Bluff and trying to make it about the oysters in the bay.  But there is a connection to the bay, and as Felicia Coleman illustrated, beyond the bay and into the Gulf.  Gag and red grouper are commercially important fish that are caught in waters that are about 60 feet deep.  They spawn when the green river plume is at its seasonal peak (the flow of the river is not constant).  Dr. Coleman presented a map that showed the greatest concentration of grouper spawning happened within that plume.    So the water flow, which is at an all time low (since people have started measuring it), is crucial to that fishery as well as to the shrimp, crab, and oyster fisheries of the bay.  “If you look at rivers around the world that have had intense fresh water withdrawals,” Dr. Coleman said, “There have been some of the most spectacular fishery failures that we know about, in a global sense.”

Riverlinks

I’m not the only one publishing blog posts on RiverTrek 2012.  My fellow paddler (and author) Doug Alderson wrote this post for his Visit Tallahassee blog.

The Army Corps of Engineers is updating the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint Master Water Control Manual, and they are taking public input.  You can let your voice be heard here.

Stay tuned for Part II of the RiverTrek Adventure on Wednesday November 14 at 7:30 PM/ ET as we complete our journey to the bay.

Over 60 milk jugs from a Tallahassee Starbucks.  Good use of recycled materials, but will it float?

Whatever Floats (We Hope) Your Boat

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

 

Over 60 milk jugs from a Tallahassee Starbucks. Good use of recycled materials, but will it float?

Today we take a little break from the Apalachicola River and Bay crises and from our ecological explorations into the intertidal for something fun: The FSU Coastal & Marine Lab’s 1st Annual Regatta.  People from the community, many wearing outlandish costumes, brought in seven different homemade boats made from recycled materials.  I was mentally prepared to film sinking ships (and half of them tested their boats ahead of time) and rescues from the two rescue boats stationed at either end of the course.  It was as entertaining a shoot as I’ve been on recently, and it could have been a longer segment if I’d included the explanations of each boat name, which were typically pretty clever.

In the interview with Dr. Felicia Coleman, she mentions that she wanted to bring attention to recycling.  It’s not as hot button an issue as climate change, the BP spill, or water management in the ACF basin, but a few stats gathered by In the Grass, On the Reef Associate Producer Rebecca Wilkerson illustrate that if we as a society recycled more of our plastic, we would be doing our oceans a favor.

The "Splinter," a boat made from a kiddie pool and various plastic recyclables, wrapped in plastic and shaped like a turtle. Who can identify which turtle each girl is supposed to be from their painted on masks?

Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year.  Sources gathered by Rebecca indicate that only 5-10% of it is recycled.  The rest ends up in landfills and in the ocean.  There is no definitive number on how much plastic is floating in the ocean.  The State of the Planet blog from Earth Institute at Columbia University puts the number in the hundreds of million of tons, where a more ambitious attempt at calculating it from 5GYRES puts it at 315 billion tons.  This page on the Marine Research Institute’s Algalita web site discusses how slowly plastic breaks down, possibly staying in ecosystems for centuries.  Plastic floating near the surface confuses birds and gets eaten by them.  Properly disposing of plastic would is the best way to prevent this burden on our oceans.

Well, there I went getting serious when I said we were taking a break from the serious.  I hope you enjoy the video.  In the next few weeks we’ll delve back into the intertidal, looking more closely at some of the ecosystem services provided by salt marshes and oyster reefs.  And we’ll be posting two video segments from RiverTrek 2012, so stay tuned!

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The River, the Bay, and the Army Corps of Engineers

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Slideshow: Army Corps of Engineers visit Apalachicola Bay

Tonight on WFSU’s Dimensions: Part 1 of the RiverTrek 2012 Adventure.  Days one and two of paddling, camping, hiking and climbing air at 7:30 PM/ ET with an encore on Sunday, October 28 at 10 AM/ ET.  The trip concludes with Part 2 (Days 3-5) on Wednesday, November 14 at 7:30 PM/ET.

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The slideshow above was photographed on Monday, when Army Corps of Engineers colonels were invited (along with state agency officials and media) to see firsthand how depleted the oyster reefs in Apalachicola Bay have become.  We went out in three oyster boats, captained by the leadership of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, to the Cat Point bar.  Cat Point is usually one of the most productive winter reefs in the bay.  In early September, the Summer reefs closer to the mouth of the river are closed and the Winter reefs further out are opened up.  The Winter reefs should have spent months replenishing and younger oysters should have matured into legal sized, commercially viable oysters.  Only this year, it didn’t happen.

Colonel Donald Jackson receives oystering tips from Shannon Hartsfield.

Shannon Hartsfield, President of the Association, takes a few licks with his oyster tongs and then hands the them to Colonel Donald Jackson.  Colonel Jackson takes a few licks; between the two of them they take about eight.  Hartsfield inspects their catch: about six legal oysters in a pile of dead shell. Later he tells me that in past years, that amount of work would have yielded about a 30 lb. bag of legal oysters.  This is what the Army Corps of Engineers colonels were invited to see.  The Corps controls the flow of water in the Apalachicola/ Flint/ Chattahoochee basin, directing water into over 200 reservoirs and adjusting how much flows through dams.  The lack of water flowing from the Apalachicola River, due in large part to the drought we’ve experienced over the last couple of years, is the main cause of the fishery crisis.  The oystering demonstration is the Franklin County Seafood Workers’ argument for more water to be allowed through Woodruff Dam at the Florida/ Georgia border.

The wrangling over this water is often portrayed as between seafood workers in the bay and Georgia’s farmers and Atlanta’s water consumers.  But the list of stakeholders also contains power companies (hydroelectric and nuclear), MillerCoors LLC, manufacturers, and recreational concerns, to name a few (see the full list here).  It’s messy.  And change doesn’t look like it’s coming soon.  As the colonels said during the community meeting later that night at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, they are soldiers following a protocol.  A new protocol (an update to the ACF Master Water Control Manual) is being drawn up, but changes will not take effect for 2-3 years, and in the meantime there isn’t a lot of leeway for how the water can be redirected, at least not by the Army Corps of Engineers’ authority (The U.S. Legislature grants them the authority they have). They are taking public input for the Manual Update, you can send your comments here.

This slide provided by Helen Light (©USGS) illustrates the floodplain supported by the river. As water levels have decreased over the last few decades, there has been a loss of 4 million trees in the floodplain and a loss of aquatic habitat.

During that meeting, presenters from different agencies, universities, and local concerns laid out the impact of the low water flow on the bay and on the river basin.  The next day, the colonels would be going up the river to see the effects of low flow there, where I had just paddled a week-and-a-half ago in the video that airs tonight.  My interest had been, as a main focus of the In the Grass, On the Reef project is oyster reef ecology, the bay and how the lack of river flow had affected it.  As Helen Light said to us on the first night of the trek “You all know a lot about the bay, and the impacts in the bay, you’ve been reading it in the paper.”  That night, gathered around her on the sand bar across from Alum Bluff, she proceeded to tell us about the effects on the river.  She had studied the floodplain for decades while working for the US Geological Survey, and has seen the changes undergone as river flow has decreased over the last few decades.  I keep going back to her talk in the video, much as we did in our conversations kayaking down the river.  Even as we were falling in love with the river (or reconnecting with it), we learned of its struggles and the troubles it was facing.

For all of the statistics on the decline of the river, it was still a beautiful paddle.  The fish were jumping, eagles soared overhead, turtles sat on logs- and as we reported, there were plenty of snakes.  We got off the river, too, to see some of the creeks, swamps, and forest around it.  For all its troubles, the river is still enjoyable, as are its products.  There has been a 44% decline in Ogeechee Tupelo trees along the river since 1976, but you can still buy tupelo honey produced from the trees in the river basin.  And at the reception after the community meeting on Monday, the same day I saw oystermen pull dead shell off the floor of the bay,  there were trays of healthy looking Apalachicola oysters on the half shell.  As tourists and consumers, it can be easy to dismiss the stats when our own eyes (and taste buds) tell us everything looks normal.

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RiverTrek 2012: A Quick Look Back

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

On every RiverTrek Day wrap-up post I wrote about what I heard while I lay in my sleeping bag that morning.  This morning it was the buzzing of my alarm, and then I strained to hear anything else.  Walls do a much better job keeping sound out than the thin fabric of a tent.  Eventually I hear that gentle hum of cars and trucks.  Today’s trash day, so I know garbage and recycling trucks are coming.

Back to a more technologically civilized existence.  That means I can upload all the posts that wouldn’t make it from the tablet while using Rick’s or Micheal’s phones as hotspots.  And I can add a lot more photos.  The blog software lets you fudge the dates, so everything can show up in order and you can start at the beginning and look at what we saw along the way.  The best way to see it all would be to go back to what is currently page 3 and keep scrolling over the posts (every new post will push them down, so this won’t be true for more than a few weeks).  Or you can just jump to the beginning and go post by post.

I am fortunate and honored that I was invited to participate in this year’s event.  I hope we do it justice in these posts and in the two video segments set to air on WFSU’s dimensions program (and which I’ll post here).  There may be other bits and pieces to post as well.  We saw and learned a lot.

And I do want to thank everyone who helped me with the production side of things.  Georgia already thanked the support team, and I want to reiterate that.  Thanks Eddie, Mitch, Fred, Dawn and Rick.  Thanks as well to Captain Gill on the support boat, and a big thanks to Dan Tonsmeire for taking a videographer for two days and showing him the river (and for so many other things as well).

Thanks to WFSU videographer Dan Peeri and In the Grass, On the Reef Associate Producer Rebecca Wilkerson for your assistance on the production side of things.

Thanks to the paddlers for putting up with the cameras, my lagging behind when I went to get a shot, and the occasional bump from my boat.  And for making me feel welcome in this group.  Thanks to Rick and Micheal for the use of your phones as WiFi hotspots.  A big thanks to Georgia for posting diligently and keeping the outside world up to date when technology failed me.  Georgia and Doug Alderson did a fantastic job coordinating the trip and picking participants.  I can’t say enough about the experience of RiverTrek, and how much there was for us to shoot and write about.

Lastly, I want to thank my wife Amy for letting me go for five days and staying home with an increasingly active toddler.

I’m probably forgetting someone.  If I am, these posts are editable.