Thanks in large part to a proposal to dam a tributary upstream of Lake Lanier, the Chattahoochee River has landed on a top 10 list of endangered rivers in the country today.
The Chattahoochee, at the center of a decades-long struggle between Georgia, Florida and Alabama over control of its water, is the only river in the Southeast to make this year’s list, which is compiled annually by the American Rivers organization.
The river has made the list three other times, but the group hasn’t called the river “endangered” since 2000.
The Chattahoochee’s spot on the list this year is directly related to a plan to dam Flat Creek in North Hall, impounding the water there to create an 850-acre reservoir.
American Rivers also lists a proposal to build Bear Creek Reservoir in South Fulton County as a “significant threat” to the river.
Hall County officials, like Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Oliver, tout their proposed reservoir as a necessity for securing the county’s future water supply. In a proposal submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, county officials project the reservoir could help supply some 72.5 million gallons a day of water to Hall County customers.
The corps is awaiting the results of a study of the impacts of the Glades Reservoir proposal before it will permit Hall County to build it.
A draft of the study is expected late this year, and a permit decision likely will be made next year.
Oliver argues the reservoir “will have no more impact than Lake Lanier does on the Chattahoochee River,” and that the corps-commissioned study will show that building Glades is more important now than ever.
“It’s something that has to be done,” Oliver said.
Jenny Hoffner, the director of water supply for American Rivers, said the group, by listing the Chattahoochee, hopes to draw attention to the proposals to dam the Chattahoochee and what she says is a larger trend across the country to build reservoirs.
The group also wants to call attention to what it says are viable alternatives to building reservoirs, including more aggressive conservation measures.
They hope the attention the list brings results in the corps’ denial of a permit to build Glades Reservoir.
The report released today doesn’t outline the country’s most polluted waterways, only those that stand to be significantly changed by an imminent decision.
“I think as we’re learning more and more here in the Southeast, water is finite...” Hoffner said. “I think the lesson here is that there’s no new water. These reservoirs do not create new water. We’re essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
In addition to listing the Chattahoochee as endangered, American Rivers, along with the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center, last month submitted comments to the corps on Hall County’s proposal to build the reservoir on Flat Creek.
The comments are meant to guide the corps-commissioned study of Glades’ impacts on the larger river basin.
The groups’ letter called into question the county’s intentions to build the reservoir or its need for the water Glades might provide.
“We are unconvinced that this is not in fact an amenity lake disguised as a water supply reservoir for permitting purposes,” the letter states.
American Rivers’ “most endangered” list also calls Glades and Bear Creek “amenity lakes for new subdivision developments.”
“Following court rulings and recent multi-year periods of extreme drought, project proponents have repackaged these projects to justify them as water supply options,” the report states.
Oliver disputes that claim, though he acknowledges that there will be development in the area around the proposed reservoir.
But, he said, “the setback (required from the reservoir’s shoreline to any development) and the restrictions will be such that it is not an amenity lake.”
The groups’ letter also asked the corps to consider the impact of the proposed reservoir on water temperatures in a trout habitat downstream of Buford Dam.
The trout habitat is also mentioned in the report released today.
Trout Unlimited lists a section extending below Buford Dam to Roswell as one of the country’s 100 best trout streams.
Kevin McGrath, president of the upper Chattahoochee chapter of the organization, says it’s also one of two trout streams in a major metropolitan area in North America.
He said the survival of that trout fishery is dependent upon a certain amount of cool water coming from Buford Dam. If another reservoir lessened the water coming from the dam, it could affect the river’s temperature, which could affect the fish and the food that they eat, McGrath said.
His organization, like American Rivers, advocates exhausting conservation efforts first and then expanding existing reservoirs before building another.
“Water is a valuable and important resource to all Georgians and to our neighbors in Alabama and in Florida,” McGrath said. “And anything that is done in terms of modifying the flow of the river or impounding water is going to affect everybody in the local area where that reservoir is built downstream to Apalachicola Bay ... all those actions have a cumulative affect.”
Oliver cites the small watershed in North Georgia as a reason to impound more of the basin’s water for Hall County’s use, saying Glades could be an “asset to the river” during a drought situation.
“With the city of Atlanta located in one of the smallest water basins in the country, it just makes sense for us to build more reservoirs in our area to have more water supply,” Oliver said. “I think what (Glades) will allow us to do is to enhance the value of the watershed.”
But even if the proposal to build Glades is meant to secure future water, Hoffner says it will have the opposite effect.
“When you impound more water, you’re evaporating a significant amount of water,” Hoffner said, estimating that some five million gallons of water would evaporate from the surface of Glades and Bear Creek daily. “That’s water lost to the system. It’s water lost to downstream users. It’s water lost to everybody who values the river.”
“Creating more reservoirs in a basin like this actually becomes a liability in terms of water supply, instead of an asset,” she added.