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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Rivers South, Part 1

Air Date: Week of

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Reporter Clay Scott takes us down the Chattahoochee River. The river begins in Northern Georgia and makes its way south to Florida where it ultimately empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, the Chattahoochee runs through Atlanta where a growing population, and the drought, are putting pressures on the river’s ecoystems and the livelihood of fishermen further downstream.



CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The southeast part of the U.S. may be lush and green but it’s not exempt from growing demand for fresh water. And one place where water disputes are heating up involves the Chattahoochee River.

The Chattahoochee flows down from the mountains of north Georgia and through Atlanta. Along the way it provides water for drinking, crops, electricity and recreation. But development pressures in Atlanta are sucking the river dry and years of drought haven’t helped.

Politicians are struggling to find a way to share the water but they have yet to find easy answers. Producer Clay Scott begins our story at the source of the Chattahoochee in northern Georgia.

SCOTT: The Chattahoochee River rises in the mountains of north Georgia, in the southern end of the Appalachian range. I want to find its exact source but I need a bit of help. In the town of Helen, Georgia, I meet Delbert Greear, a 54-year-old math teacher and native of the mountains. He agrees to be my guide.


SCOTT: A few miles north of town, Delbert eases his battered pickup onto a dirt road in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Leaving the truck at the trailhead, we begin to walk.


GREEAR: Cool little gap, isn’t it?

SCOTT: Oh yeah.

GREEAR: Blackberry bushes and the possible home of the old copperhead there ....

SCOTT: For an hour we climb the mountain known as Jack’s Knob. Delbert points out white and blackjack oak, sassafras and sourwood, poke bush and poplar. Stopping on a ridge top to catch our breath, a sudden mountain rain shower takes us by surprise.


SCOTT: There’s no adequate shelter nearby but Delbert quickly builds a small fire.


SCOTT: As we hunch over it for warmth, Delbert speaks of growing up in the headwaters of the Chattahoochee.

GREEAR: I have a specific liking for this neck of the woods. It’s in my bones and blood. Going down the river, you’ll see other people that see their particular neck of the woods as being the Garden of Eden or slightly removed, however slightly removed from it.

SCOTT: The narrow ridge we’re on divides the watersheds of the Chattahoochee and the Tennessee Rivers. Standing in a rainstorm in a forest of nearly tropical lushness, it’s difficult to remember a bitter conflict is being fought over the waters that originate here. Too many people, Delbert says, take that water for granted.

GREEAR: Everybody that lives on it, you have to think about the people below you and say, we got some sort of obligation to send the water on and not to overuse and be selfish with it.

SCOTT: Finally, the rain lets up. We make our way across a ravine to where a steady trickle of water flows from beneath a granite boulder.


SCOTT: This is the spot where the Chattahoochee begins its 540-mile course. The water is cold, sweet and delicious with just a hint of mineral taste. We follow the flow down the mountain where the trickle comes together with another and another. Soon it’s become a full-fledged mountain stream, home to rare speckled trout. At this point, Delbert announces the Chattahoochee is a river.


SCOTT: Back in Helen, I meet Delbert’s father, Philip, a former farmer who late in life became a professor of ecology. After a supper of grilled steak and cornbread and beans, he invites me to the back porch to talk.


SCOTT: Philip, who has lost his sight in recent years and much of his hearing, is passionate about the Chattahoochee, a love affair that started in 1936 when he and his brother decided to follow the river to the Gulf of Mexico.

GREEAR, P.: We wanted to go down the river. We had no purpose. We just wanted to go down the river. We had grown up here on it, it was our river and we knew that it went somewhere. So we built this pair of boats that became one boat. It’s two feet wide and 16 feet long, built out of one-inch thick, undressed lumber.

SCOTT: Fortified with canned pineapple juice, oatmeal and a slab of bacon, the Greear brothers set forth. They traveled at the speed the water flowed, about two miles an hour.

GREEAR, P.: The mathematicians will tell you that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Our decision was that the longest distance between two points is a meandering river. [CHUCKLES]

SCOTT: That meandering river carried the two teenagers south for nearly 300 miles before exhausted, they abandoned their boat and hitchhiked home. Though the Chattahoochee was muddy, Philip said they fished and swam in its current, boiled its water for coffee and oatmeal, and helped themselves to watermelons growing on its banks. Today, the urban sprawl north of Atlanta has swallowed the watermelon fields and few people dare to swim in the river.


BETHEA: You see trash, footballs, you see all kinds of other waste and debris that’s floated here off of the city streets and through the storm drains, right where we get our drinking water.

SCOTT: Sally Bethea is the director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, an organization that’s been leading the fight to clean up the river. She takes me on a boat tour through the heart of Atlanta. On our way, we pass three of the city’s over-taxed wastewater treatment plants, not far from where drinking water is being pumped out.

BETHEA: Just immediately downstream you can see Peachtree Creek. It’s one of the biggest tributaries to the Chattahoochee and also one of the most polluted.

SCOTT: The Chattahoochee below Peachtree Creek is one of the most polluted stretches of river in the country. Many of Atlanta’s antiquated sewer lines also carry stormwater, causing more than occasional overflows of the system.

In the 1990s the city paid $20 million in fines for improper treatment of sewage. Atlanta has been ordered to overhaul the system by 2007. But despite the bits of trash we see, I am struck by how isolated I feel in the middle of a city of four million. As we float past banks lined with sycamore and river birch, we startle wood ducks and mallards, kingfishers and blue herons. But there’s more to the Chattahoochee, says Sally Bethea, than meets the eye.

BETHEA: This river is still to me certainly a very beautiful river. It has many different kinds of faces. And the water doesn’t always look like there are problems with its quality. But I can tell you, after a heavy rainstorm, the e. coli level in this river is just off the charts. And it’s just an unacceptable level for a river that runs through a vibrant city like this. We’ve got to do better.

SCOTT: The pollution problem is critical, not only for the health of the river itself, but because Atlanta takes nearly all its drinking water from the Chattahoochee. It’s the smallest American river to supply so large a city. Atlanta sits on a hard bed of igneous rock without easy access to the underground aquifers that supply fresh water in many cities. And the city is growing by the day. In the past ten years, the population of greater Atlanta has jumped over 40%, from 2.9 to 4.2 million. Water consumption has kept pace, climbing from 320 million gallons a day ten years ago to well over 400 million. Within 30 years that number is expected to reach more than 700 million gallons per day, a figure, says Sally Bethea, that spells potential disaster for both the river and the city.

BETHEA: There is simply a limit to the amount of growth that can occur in metro Atlanta and be sustained by its rivers. This is a shallow river; it’s a river that can only provide so much drinking water and wastewater assimilation. The worst-case scenario is that in 30 years, where we’re sitting right now you’ll see nothing but a drainage ditch carrying away the waste of parking lots and sewer lines and sewer plants.


SCOTT: But Atlanta’s rampant growth shows no sign of slowing down. J.T. Williams has built thousands of homes in the greater Atlanta area. I interviewed him at the country club of one of his many gated communities.


WILLIAMS: Every decision we make about what property we buy and what property we develop is concerned with water. It has become the number one question that we have. There has to be adequate supply of water. Like the golf courses, we have to get the water in order to have the beautiful grasses.

SCOTT: Williams says it’s simplistic to blame developers for the area’s water shortage, saying they are only responding to consumer demand. But the country club-style developments that characterize much of Atlanta’s growth, others say, use far too much water. Jeff Rader, the president of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association, says the industry can help shape demand by educating the public about water conservation.

RADER: They like the luxury of a lot of water. And certainly we have been sort of sold on broad green lawns as a primary manifestation of the good life, particularly in suburban areas. But those are really sort of arbitrary aesthetic preferences and there can be a lot done to move us in the other direction. The key, I think, will be for not only the building industry to assume responsibility for that, but really our entire regional ethic has to change to recognize the scarcity and the value of water.

SCOTT: But even with the growing awareness of the scarcity of water, even with the type of conservation measures that Jeff Rader and others advocate, the water of the Chattahoochee is a finite resource. A recent study projects that the river will be tapped out by the year 2030. By other estimates, the Chattahoochee’s day of reckoning could come much sooner. Communities downstream from Atlanta take their share of water for agriculture and other uses, but by far the biggest strain is put on the river by Atlanta. I asked Bob Kerr of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources if the city should be allowed to grow unchecked.

KERR: Unless we pass laws to keep people from moving here or we, in some way, curtail the growth through lack of jobs and those kind of things, Atlanta will grow. Now, should we say, all you people that were going to come to Atlanta, how about going down to Columbus and just take the water there? It’s the same water. If it’s not used in Atlanta and it’s used in Columbus, it’s the same water.

SCOTT: If continued growth is inevitable, says Bob Kerr, then ultimately, additional water sources must be explored. There’s talk of building new reservoirs for water storage, or even of piping in water from elsewhere. But some people, like Professor Bruce Ferguson of the University of Georgia, believe some partial solutions may be closer at hand.

FERGUSON: The amount of water that we’re throwing away from impervious services is enormous, and we can reclaim 50 percent of that anyway, very easily.

SCOTT: Ferguson is an expert in the field of storm water management. He believes that better management of rainwater could do much to alleviate water problems in the south and elsewhere in the U.S. He shows me half a dozen samples of porous concrete, which could replace conventional asphalt and concrete on streets and parking lots. The porous pavement would allow rainwater to pass through into the earth where it would slowly work its way into tributaries and rivers. This would not only cut down on floods and erosion, he says, but create a natural and efficient water storage system.

FERGUSON: That water belongs in the soil. That is where it went before we came along and it is a great gift that nature is able to work, if we’ll only let it.

SCOTT: In the meantime, as experts debate the best way to keep Atlanta supplied with water, communities farther down in the watershed, in South Georgia, Alabama and Florida, are staking their own claims to the precious resource. In 1998, the governors of the three states were entrusted by Congress with the task of working out an allocation formula. But more than a dozen deadlines have come and gone since then and the tri-state talks continue to plod on.


SCOTT: Back in Helen, Georgia, Dr. Philip Greear predicts those talks with ultimately be fruitless unless decision-makers look beyond regional interests and dare to take a broader view of the issue of water.

GREEAR, P.: Basically, to me there is in our culture and all human cultures the absence of respect for natural systems themselves, and that is particularly true about water. The water cannot be divided between Florida and Alabama and Georgia. I know they’ve been working, the politicians have been working on it for years and they can’t come to any agreement because they can’t answer the question about who owns the water. Because there’s no answer to that question. We don’t own it.

CURWOOD: In a moment, we’ll travel further down the Chattahoochee where the river changes names and character. You’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Kelly Joe Phelps, “I’ve Been Converted” LEAD ME ON (Burnside Record, 1994)]



Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper


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