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Reach of the River: The rest of the story

Series only scratches the surface of the river’s importance to Georgia and its neighbors

POSTED: June 27, 2010 1:00 a.m.

Eight days of long-winded stories on the river and we haven't even begun to scratch the surface.

For the last week, we at The Times have tried to put a face on some of the major needs of the Chattahoochee River system, explain to you where they are and why they are relevant.

But with constraints on time and space we couldn't begin to tell you everything that this river system sustains. This series largely left out some of the most obvious uses of the river and others that are extremely obscure.

There could have been an eight-day series on metro Atlanta's use of the water alone, including how the watershed up here has been covered up with pavement and how the poultry industry in Hall County is made possible by the bounty of Lake Lanier.

But too often we end up with North Georgia-centric stories and lose perspective of how each and every trickle in this river system affects all of us.

So when it came to deciding what to explain, we wanted to show you the things you might not hear about as much as we in the local news business get caught up in the day-to-day cycle of bringing you the most relevant news as quick as we can.

"As you look at the river and you read about the news stories, you know, it's almost as though there's Lake Lanier and then there's Apalachicola River, and nobody really focuses on the 120-mile river section — real river section — from Buford Dam down to Franklin, which is at the headwaters of West Point Lake," bemoans Sally Bethea, Riverkeeper for the Upper Chattahoochee watershed. "... Everybody wants to look at keeping water in Lake Lanier or making sure their fresh water flows in Apalachicola. Both are important goals, certainly, but what about everybody in-between?"

While we felt it was important to tell you about the preciousness of the Apalachicola River, we left out that there are ecological concerns throughout the basin.

With the amount of treated sewage that comes into the stretch of river between Lake Lanier and West Point Lake, the river running through Atlanta needs enough upstream flow to keep it from becoming toxic to fish.
The upstream flow dilutes the treated wastewater coming into the stream. Without it, the microbes processing the waste will eat up the levels of dissolved oxygen fish need to survive, Bethea explains.

The magic number is 750 cubic feet of water, or 5,611 gallons, that must flow downstream of the pipes Atlanta uses to withdraw between 70 to 115 million gallons of water for drinking each day just north of the mouth of Peachtree Creek. The creek drains most of the stormwater from Atlanta into the river.

Right below the intake are several pipes that release hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater and stormwater back into an eight-mile stretch of the river.

At least three sewer discharges lie within a half-mile of each other, and others that belong to Fulton, Cobb and Douglas counties, release treated wastewater not far downstream. A partially closed landfill from the 1980s is nearby, and the Riverkeepeers say something with a chemical odor occasionally seeps out.

"Both in flood and in drought, this area's ground zero for the upper part of the river basin in terms of the health of the river," she said. "You've got hundreds of millions of gallons being pulled out of the river between Buford and Peachtree Creek, and then you've got hundreds of millions of gallons going back as treated sewage."

She laughs.

"And it's a tiny river."

It's something anyone near the upper end of the Chattahoochee River basin who pays any attention at all hears a lot: The watershed around Atlanta is small but supports so much.

Bethea says it doesn't help that acres of the basin have been covered by asphalt each day in a development boom that brought tons of jobs to Atlanta but sent its water downstream on the fast track.

Bethea, along with the rest of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper group, is always looking out to make sure the water meets established water quality levels, but she says there isn't enough infrastructure to properly monitor the river's health.

She says efforts to get proper monitoring equipment and adequate evaluations of the river's needs haven't been met with enthusiasm.

"Why is it that a small nonprofit organization seems to be the only one that is really focused on caring about the amount of flow in the river ... that's critical to the health of the river downstream?" Bethea asked.

Bethea is on the governing board for a group we mentioned a lot in this series, the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Stakeholders Group.

The group came together in 2008 to try to find a way to address everyone's needs in the basin without draining the river or clogging the courts. In its short time, the group has come up with a list of 14 different needs sustained by this river system.

And while some of our stories this week combined a few of those needs, largely left missing from this series was the use of the river for navigational purposes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent boatloads of money on locks between Walter F. George Dam in Fort Gaines and Lake Seminole that, despite their congressional authorizations, are hardly used today.
Speaking to one of the lock operators at Walter F. George, we learned that only a few boats ever come through the locks, and none are commercial.

The state of Florida put the kibosh on the dredging that made commercial barge traffic possible in the basin because removal of the sand from the river channel, and its disposal on the banks, destroyed habitat vital to the species in the river, according to Ted Hoehn with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

But Homer Hirt, who once ran a port on the Apalachicola River south of Jim Woodruff Dam near Sneads, Fla., said the decision to stop dredging made 12 barge and towing companies on the river system take their business elsewhere.

"They're not sitting out there waiting for us to open. They're out doing business somewhere else," Hirt said.
While Hirt said he doesn't think his old port could benefit, he said Bainbridge, on the Flint River, could. He said it would also make the region more amenable to industry.

"I would love to see it come back because it would make our agricultural people more competitive, and it would offer something to attract new industry," said Hirt.

Attracting jobs and industry also hinges upon local governments' ability to provide enough water for these industries to run. But these governments also need the water to ensure basic fire protection to their residents, as Joe Maltese, the former LaGrange assistant city manager, pointed out recently to the ACF Stakeholders group.

Billy Turner, the former head of Columbus Water Works, said water quality also is central to local governments' use of the water.

And water suppliers, be they local government officials or private companies, often find themselves caught between the need to see a return on their investments and the need to conserve the river's water, said Glenn Page, the general manager of the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority.

"They keep the pressure on us to keep the rates low so we have to sell more water," said Page.

Pressure exists on all sides of each entity's use of the Chattahoochee. That is the story the river cannot tell on its own.

And we hope that by reading this week's series you will gain at least a little more perspective and seek out as much as you can of the rest of the story.


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