National Wildlife: January 2009 Archives


Unbridled development and pollution threaten the Chattahoochee's ability to be all things to the millions who use and abuse the fabled river

Copyright Jessica Snyder Sachs, as originally appeared in National Wildlife magazine

GRIDLOCK seizes metro Atlanta by 8:00 am most weekdays, as traffic grinds to a halt along hundreds of miles of urban highway. Ironically, it's from this road-rage-inducing vantage point that millions have fallen under the spell of the river the Creek Indians called Chattahoochee--"the river of painted rocks." For as the waterway dips and weaves beneath dozens of the city's thoroughfares, an ethereal mist rises from its waters, broken only by the herons and kingfishers that dive from its wooded banks. Look long enough and you can imagine an ancient hunter in a dugout canoe slipping through the billowing vapor. Look again and imagine it's you, disappearing downriver, far away from the exhaust and blaring horns.

Ask anyone who lives in this sprawling metropolis of 3.5 million and you'll be hard pressed to hear a negative word about their beloved 'Hooch. They boat and fish in its waters, picnic and play on its banks, draw power from its dams and drink from its spigots. Even as the river passes through the most industrialized sections of this city, its banks remain cloaked in the river birch, sycamore and tulip poplar that inspired southern author Pat Conroy to describe Atlanta as "where they built a city and left the forest."

But despite its serene appearance, this same river also flushes metro Atlanta's toilets and silently accepts the equivalent of a major oil spill in polluted runoff each year. As a result, the 70-mile section of river south of Atlanta ranks among the five most polluted waterways in the nation. Meanwhile, the metro area's breakneck growth continues to devour the Chattahoochee's watershed--the smallest to supply a major American city--at the unprecedented rate of 50 acres a day.

Not that Atlantans stand alone in loving the Chattahoochee to death. Over the last decade, the state governments of Georgia, Alabama and Florida have remained locked in a water war over their competing rights to use the river as both water source and sewer. So great are the demands that not only water quality but water quantity--an issue more often associated with the arid West--has become a severe regional problem. So much water is being drawn from the Chattahoochee along its 540-mile journey to sea that its declining volume threatens one of the world's most productive estuaries: Apalachicola Bay in the Gulf of Mexico.

"We are at the crossroads," says Sally Bethea, director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a river advocacy group founded in 1994 by Laura and Rutherford Seydel, daughter and son-in-law of Atlanta media mogul Ted Turner. "We have already changed this river forever, with 15 dams from one end to the other," adds Bethea. "But it still supports an immense diversity of wildlife. The crucial issue now is whether our leaders will insist the river be protected as a healthy ecosystem or whether we continue using it as a toilet and dump."

This workhorse of a river begins as a weeping-rock spring in the Blue Ridge Mountains, 80 miles north of Atlanta and a stone's throw from the Appalachian Trail. Surrounding the headwaters is the lush, 750,000-acre Chattahoochee National Forest, home to some 500 species of animals.

Several miles downstream, after the river tumbles out of federal land, it flows south through poultry farms and fertilized fields, picking up a heavy load of agricultural runoff. This section of the upper Chattahoochee is a magnet for construction of new, luxurious retirement communities. The development increases downstream as the river widens to form the aquatic playground of Lake Lanier, created with the completion of Buford Dam in 1956. By releasing water from the chilly bottom of its reservoir, the dam transformed the section of river below its turbines into the nation's southernmost cold-water trout stream.

Lanier itself has become the country's most-visited federal reservoir. As a result, the 38,000-acre lake is now visibly filling with tons of silt. Add to this mix the discharge of high-phosphorus wastewater from poorly regulated treatment plants and the tainted runoff from oil-slicked roads and chemically pampered lawns.

Concluding that the lake can cope with the onslaught, Georgia's Environmental Protection Division last year signaled a willingness to permit the rapidly growing counties bordering the lake to increase their wastewater discharges, contingent on enforcement of water-treatment standards. "That the state is finally setting water-quality standards for the lake is a step in the right direction," says Russ England, assistant chief of fisheries with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. But the environmental pressures on Lanier won't abate as long as the region's unbridled growth continues, he cautions. "If they halfway try, a lot of upstream communities can learn from Atlanta's mistakes," adds England. "But their interests remain with rapid growth and against anything that would drive up the cost of that growth."

Existing regulations include a prohibition on disrupting a 25- to 50-foot buffer zone along the riverbank and requirements for erosion-control barriers on construction sites within the watershed. But enforcement is lax, claims Bethea. Part of the problem is lack of manpower. Though Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi River, its Environmental Protection Division staff is disproportionately small.

Between Lake Lanier and Atlanta, the Chattahoochee winds for 48 miles through the metro area's affluent suburbs. The riverfront here lies protected from further development by dozens of municipal parks and the 4,000-acre Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, a string of 13 riverfront units. Even private homes on this stretch of the river remain largely hidden by the resilient vegetation that typifies Georgia's Piedmont region.

But just 50 feet back from the river begins a sea of impervious pavement and brick. During rainstorms, runoff that would naturally filter through vegetation-bound soil instead collects on hot surfaces and slaloms down streets to pour into the river and its tributary creeks. The unnatural wallop of sediment and heated water has already exterminated the Chattahoochee's native shellfish and now endangers temperature- and sight-sensitive fish such as trout, says naturalist Henning von Schmeling of the Chattahoochee Nature Center, a 130-acre riverfront educational facility north of Atlanta.


Over the next ten miles, as the river flows through Atlanta proper, it absorbs more than 250 million gallons of treated sewage and nearly a billion gallons of heated power-plant discharge a day. Even worse are the millions of gallons of raw sewage that spill into the river when rainstorms swamp the city's overburdened treatment plant.

From 1995 to 1997, the Riverkeeper spearheaded a lawsuit against the city for its sewer system's long-standing violations of the federal Clean Water Act. As a result, Atlanta was forced to pay $2.5 million in fines and comply with a strict eight-year timetable for improving water quality that included spending $360 million to upgrade its main sewage plant and committing another $25 million for watershed restoration.

A greater problem remains in polluted runoff from roads, construction sites and other nonpoint sources. The longstanding provisions of the federal Clean Water Act require the state of Georgia to reduce such pollution to a level that the river can absorb without threatening wildlife. "But the state has yet to determine the level of pollutants going into the river, let alone what it can safely handle," says biologist Andrew Schock, director of NWF's Southeastern Natural Resources Center. NWF has become particularly involved in training community activists in Atlanta's poorer neighborhoods to lobby for the restoration of the heavily polluted waters where their children fish, swim and play.


"Success," adds Schock, "means having the people who live in those neighborhoods involved in the decisions that affect their daily lives."

South of the city, the Chattahoochee opens up for a slow, 40-mile meander through floodplain farmland to West Point Lake on the Georgia-Alabama border. West Point's quiet waters--a stark contrast to Lanier's buzz of activity--have become a settling pond for Atlanta's tainted runoff. But even as pollution levels dampen the lake's popularity for swimming, the high load of nitrogen and phosphorous has made West Point one of the nation's most fertile bass hatcheries. Bald eagles, osprey, and heron share the world-class fishing with sports anglers, though the humans know better than to eat what they catch.

After West Point, the Chattahoochee continues south along the state border and over the fall line, where the hard rock and red clay of Piedmont Plateau give way to the soft sandstone of the coastal plain. Wildlife becomes even more abundant as the river fills its last reservoir, the shallow and reedy Lake Seminole. There, the waters of the Chattahoochee mingle with those of the Flint River before entering the Florida Panhandle under a new name: the Apalachicola. Over its final 100 miles, the meandering stream nourishes millions of acres of hardwood swamp, including the world's largest stands of tupelo trees.

The river's final act is to deliver some 16 billion gallons of fresh water a day into Apalachicola Bay, a protected estuary where fresh and salt water mix slowly to produce a world-class harvest of oysters, shrimp and fish valued at more than $100 million a year. Imperative to the health of this breeding ground is the massive influx of fresh water that keeps deep-ocean predators at bay. Declining volume and pollution have already begun to take their tolls.

"A lot of hip Atlantans love to eat Apalachicola oysters at the city's finest restaurants," comments von Schmeling. "They need to realize that the road grease from their commutes and the chemicals from their over-fertilized yards are ending up on their plates." In many ways, Atlanta's appreciation of fine Apalachicola oysters epitomizes the larger issues facing the Chattahoochee. The millions of Southeasterners who benefit from this river must now face the cost of ensuring its long-term welfare.

"The answers must come from a sense of wise stewardship," says Lindsay Thomas, the federal commissioner appointed to oversee the ongoing negotiations between the three states for the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola River Basin. But solutions have not come easily. Over the last three years, state negotiators have failed to meet four deadlines for a mutually satisfactory water-management plan. Georgia and Alabama want enough water to sustain another 50 years of booming development, without sacrificing irrigation for agriculture or river levels for commercial navigation. Florida remains desperate to stem the dwindling flow that threatens Apalachicola Bay and 90 percent of its oyster harvest.

Fighting to be heard above the fray is the 17-member TriState Conservation Coalition, which includes the Riverkeeper and two NWF affiliates, the Georgia Wildlife Federation and Florida Wildlife Federation. Lobbying for negotiators to go beyond sheer quantity, the coalition is raising complex "flow" issues that directly impact the wildlife that make southeastern rivers among the most biologically diverse on Earth. Many of the Chattahoochee's 170 species of fish, for example, rely on spring floods to reach their spawning grounds in surrounding wetlands. As withdrawals lower the river's flow, the careful timing of dam releases becomes crucial to these natural cycles. Cyclic flooding is even more pivotal to the Apalachicola Bay system, with its vast fishery nurseries.

The coalition's demands are bolstered by such federal laws as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, which requires federal negotiators to consider ecological impacts; and the Clean Water Act, which mandates that waterways be kept clean enough to maintain wildlife.

Meanwhile, water-quality issues remain largely in the control of local communities, particularly metro Atlanta and its northern neighbors. Sensing the shift in mood, some of the region's developers have begun to go beyond the letter of the law to protect the Chattahoochee. "More developers are approaching us with a sincere attitude of wanting what's best for the community," says Bethea. "Other times, they're forced to work with us."

A recent case involved construction of the massive Mall of Georgia, the centerpiece of a sprawling retail complex that laid bare some 500 acres of red Georgia clay south of Lake Lanier. "The developers needed a variance to build within stream buffers and knew we could raise holy hell about it," explains Bethea. "As result we got a seat at the planning table." Specifically, the mall's developers consulted closely with Riverkeeper engineers to keep construction runoff from rolling into bordering creeks.

On the public side, Georgia Governor Roy Barnes recently budgeted 60 new positions in the state's Environmental Protection Division, primarily in programs focusing on water quality, with a promise of 140 more over five years. Barnes also vetoed a bill that would have allowed the state legislature to strike down environmental regulations set forth by the agency. Perhaps the most exciting opportunity on the horizon is the creation of a 180-mile greenway protecting riverbank from Helen to Columbus. Though it would leapfrog privately held land, the proposed Chattahoochee Riverway would become the longest river park in the nation--a project that will require $180 million to complete.

Clearly, the momentum for saving the Chattahoochee has never been greater. "What makes this river so remarkable is the fact that there are so many people who love it and depend on it," concludes England. "But the same environmental issues are being faced by great rivers across the nation." What happens here in the next few years, environmentalists agree, will largely determine whether the Chattahoochee becomes a national paradigm or a legacy lost.

Writer Jessica Snyder Sachs is the author of Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health & Survival in a Bacterial World (Hill&Wang/FSG) and Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death (Perseus/Basic Books).


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This page is a archive of entries in the National Wildlife category from January 2009.

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