Dusty May used to enjoy free diving off the range lights at St. Joe Beach.
After a lifetime on the water, he had become intimately familiar with the spot’s ideal conditions — 20 to 30 feet of clear water leading to a “relatively clean” sandy bottom.
But about 30 years ago, he said, changes in the ecosystem caused him to stop diving altogether.
“In my 30s, we began to notice that you no longer had visibility out there,” said May. “And, in fact, the last time that I tried to dive, we realized that there was a layer of suspended solids in the water in the St. Joe Bay that literally looked like the Apalachicola River.”
“… So we’re going ‘man, something’s wrong.’ We thought it was scallop boats or dredging, but I was like no. This is bigger than that.”
It was then, May said, that he began to heed the advice of local fisherman and researchers, who had been pointing fingers at the Gulf County canal for years.
“We started talking to people, Herman Jones being one of them, about the canal. He always said that the canal’s what’s done the damage. And Captain Carl Raffield always said it. Dave Maddox said it, so we started really looking into it.”
Those were the origins of the Baysavers, a group of non-political individuals who are now working to restore the Apalachicola Bay, St. Joseph Bay, St. Andrews Bay and Lake Wimico ecosystems, connected eight decades ago to boost the local economy.
The digging of the Gulf County Canal ultimately linked the bays, the Intracoastal Waterway and Lake Wimico. It provided the boost to the local economy needed to spur the building of the St. Joe Paper Mill, which would be the economic engine for the town until it closed in the late 1990s.
But the canal also disrupted the natural flow patterns that fed each of these unique ecosystems, Baysavers argues.
During periods of low flow on the Apalachicola, a gradient, particularly during high tide events, sustained west winds or tropical weather systems, allows saltwater from the St. Joseph Bay and East Bay to move into the ICW, Lake Wimico and ultimately the Apalachicola River, Bay and marsh.
Meanwhile, during periods of high river flow, usually during winter and spring, the freshwater from the Apalachicola floodplain, along with its nutrients and sediments are back-flowing into St. Joseph Bay.
According to flow meters installed by the Northwest Florida Water Management District, between October 2020 and October 2022, the ICW diverted more than one trillion three hundred and ninety-five billion gallons of fresh water and sediment away from Apalachicola Bay. This is 1.4 times the total volume of water in Lake Okeechobee.
“Trillion is kind of a crazy word,” said May,” so let me put it like this. If you’re standing on the Highland View Bridge, you look down at the canal and you look at your stopwatch. Every minute, there’s a million gallons of fresh water and mud being pumped into St. Joe Bay.”
Baysavers says the unnatural salinity in the Apalachicola Bay and the increased Turbidity in the St. Joseph and St. Andrews Bays has had negative impacts on the oyster and seagrass populations in these ecosystems, though others argue that overfishing, increased freshwater use in other states and prop scarring are also contributing factors.
“The Apalachicola Bay and their oysters depend on this huge deposit of silt,” May said, “They’re losing a pretty good percentage of that silt, and it’s being discharged as harmful runoff into the St. Joseph Bay and the St. Andrews Bay.”
Acting as a sort of de facto leader for the group, May has spent the better part of four years working towards what he says is the best known solution — a water control structure, or lock, on the Intercoastal Waterway.
As the group envisions it, the lock would be installed between Lake Wimico and the Gulf County Canal. It would not be a permanent disunion, Baysavers emphasizes, but would allow for the natural water flow in the Apalachicola River Basin to be uninterrupted except for when needed.
Similar technology is already in use in surrounding areas, such as the Vermillion RIver structure in Louisiana or the Port Canaveral Locks here in Florida.
But the lock is still a ways off, May says, with several mandatory steps required in order to have it constructed.
Among the first is having the Army Corps of Engineers conduct a feasibility study at the proposed site, which in recent years, has become Baysavers’ top priority.
“The Army Corps of Engineers have jurisdiction over (the Intercoastal) Waterway,” said May. “So we’ve got to go to the Corps of Engineers to figure out what’s going on.”
“The Corps of Engineers have a very specific process for this. It’s called a 7001 Feasibility Study… It’s got a three year maximum duration, and it’s got a $3 million maximum spend, which will be split between the Corps of Engineers and a non-federal sponsor.”
According to May, the Army Corps of Engineers has already approved the study for funding. Now, they are looking for a state agency to act as a non-federal sponsor for the project.
The Gulf County Board of County Commissioners has sent two letters of support on behalf of the feasibility study being conducted. The first was approved by the board at their February meeting and was sent to the Northwest Florida Water Management District. The second, approved at the board’s March meeting, was sent to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.
May emphasized that having the study conducted does not lock any party into having to move forward with the implementation of a water control structure.
“We can have the study done, and then we can decide what we want to do from there,” he said.
While the state does not have to act as the non-federal sponsor for the feasibility study, they will have to ultimately be on board with the lock in order for the project to get completed, May said.
“Ultimately, the State of Florida has to be involved in this for it to gain traction and get funded on a federal level because our federal representatives will not and probably cannot move forward on an environmental project without the blessing and participation of the State of Florida.”
In the meantime, May said, Baysacers has been accepting donations from local organizations to help them spread the message and pay for consulting fees.
For more information about Baysavers, how to donate or how to get involved, visit https://baysaversfl.org/.