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Altamaha flooding: It's almost all benefit: The river and ecosystem, as well as their inhabitants, are nourished, though people and property suffer. [The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville]
[April 15, 2009]

Altamaha flooding: It's almost all benefit: The river and ecosystem, as well as their inhabitants, are nourished, though people and property suffer. [The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville]


(Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Apr. 15--EVERETT -- A heron waded stealthily, then expertly used its sharp bill to spear a fish amid the rising floodwaters of the Altamaha River. It stood in the middle of what until last week was a high and dry road traveled by fishermen and local residents.



The road near Altamaha Regional Park in northern Glynn County was submerged by floodwaters that also kept some local residents from their homes.

Flooding from the Altamaha and other major Southeast Georgia rivers in recent days has wreaked havoc on residents in Glynn, Brantley, Pierce and Ware counties. The rising waters forced families to flee their homes, many of which were heavily damaged or destroyed.


But the waters are leaving more than destruction in their wake. They are revitalizing the river system and nourishing the ecosystem, which should pay off in better catches for coastal shrimpers, crabbers and fin fishermen, state biologists told the Times-Union.

"It's a wonderful thing for the most part. Everything will benefit, except, unfortunately, the humans whose property has been affected," said Dorset Hurley, research coordinator for Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve.

What flooding does Along with Southeast Georgia's other major rivers -- the Satilla, Little Satilla and Alabaha -- the Altamaha is home to a wide variety of plant and animal life, all of which benefit from the flooding, he said.

The sudden, massive influx of freshwater into the river system brings nutrients, provides new feeding grounds for fish and other wildlife, and lowers the salinity of coastal estuaries that serve as nurseries for shrimp and crabs, Hurley said.

"We have to have these events to keep rivers in a natural state of health," said Hurley, an expert on the Altamaha river system.

River fish soon will be spawning. Carried out into the flood plain by the high water, fish will find new and more plentiful food, which will enable them to build energy for spawning. More and better food means more baby fish with a better chance at survival, he said.

"We're going to see an increase in the stock of the fin fish population," Hurley said.

There also will be an increase in dragonflies, which will feed on the mosquitoes that hatch out because of the high water. In turn, those and other insects will feed fish and birds as the cycle of life goes around, he said.

Floodwaters also are carrying big fish into areas previously inaccessible to anglers.

"I got a nice 2- and a 5-pound bass out of the ditch ... That was the first time that's ever happened to me, " said Garner Willis of Screven, who fished Wednesday in floodwaters of the Altamaha off U.S. 301 near the Wayne-Long counties line.

The Altamaha represents a third of Georgia's watershed. It's also the third-largest contributor of fresh water to the Atlantic Ocean on North America's East Coast, state and national scientific studies show.

It flows more than 130 straight-line miles from its headwaters near Lumber City down to northern Glynn County, where it enters the ocean north of Brunswick. The river system is responsible for much of the state's commercial seafood industry including shrimping and crabbing, which pump millions of dollars annually into the economy.

Floodwaters are forcing shrimp and blue crab to move downstream to the ocean where they can be caught, said Spud Woodward, assistant director for marine fisheries at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

"We'll see a spike in the shrimping effort in federal waters just outside our [state] 3-mile limit offshore, because that is where the shrimp will be," he said.

State waters historically don't open to shrimping until June, and by then there still should be a good population of shrimp available for harvest, he said.

In addition, it's crab spawning season. Egg-bearing female crabs, commonly known as sponge crabs, are moving out into the ocean with the floodwaters speeding their annual journey. It's illegal in Georgia to harvest egg-bearing females, but once their young become adults they can be harvested.

The freshwater influx will lower the salinity level. When the water is too salty, a crab-killing disease known as Hematodinium flourishes. The disease decimated Georgia's crab population from 1999 until 2004, bringing that fishery to the brink of collapse.

The disease lingers in some areas, but the floodwaters "will help knock it back," Woodward said.

"There's probably going to be a great spawning season, and a good harvest of blue crabs this year and next year as a result of this," Hurley said.

Floodwaters are helping the ecosystem by diluting and flushing out pollutants such as gasoline, oil and chemicals that run off into the rivers and tributaries from the region's homes, as well as agricultural, commercial and recreational development.

"Contaminants are always a concern, but they are diluted by the sheer volume of the floodwater," Woodward said.

In addition, flooding helps remove debris and biomass from the river system, and clear the way for new habitat for fish, reptiles and other wildlife, Hurley said.

"It's all a natural cycle," he said.

This marks the third major flood of the Altamaha River since 1995, DNR data shows.

"Floods are nature's wet version of a controlled burn," Woodward said. "As destructive as it is to man, this is not unusual. It's a natural phenomenon." teresa.stepzinski@jacksonville.com, (912) 264-0405

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