Photo by Michael Buckelew
GAINESVILLE -- Bending over the backs of the North Georgia mountains, before sinking down the eastern edge of Alabama through Florida's spring-fed swamps, the Chattahoochee River forms the spine of three Southern states.
Along its 550-mile path, the river's waters bind and bitterly divide the people who built their lives on its banks.
The river powers the economic engine that is metropolitan Atlanta. It supports the growth of thousands of acres of row crops that grow near its banks. And the Chattahoochee's arrival in the swamps of South Georgia is essential to the endurance of an ecological system found nowhere else in the Northern Hemisphere.
And still, there is even more weight to bear.
Flowing out of Georgia under a new name, waters from the Chattahoochee wash into the marshes of the Apalachicola Bay, creating a brackish water habitat where bay-area animals and industries thrive.
As much as this river carries, there's a lot riding on its control.
The water that flows through the Chattahoochee does so at the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which, for more than 50 years, has managed the river's every move.
The corps operates five dams between the river's headwaters and its confluence with the Flint River at the edge of Florida.
Each dam has its own purpose, whether to generate hydroelectricity, to simplify navigation in the river channel, to control flooding or to simply make life more fun.
Each purpose takes priority in that region, and the goal is to balance the needs of those around the dam with the dam's congressionally authorized purpose, according to Patrick Robbins, the chief public affairs officer for the corps' Mobile, Ala., district.
In a river basin where there are so many demands, "Somebody's always mad at the corps," said George Sherk, a law professor at the Colorado Energy Research Institute who specializes in water-sharing issues.
And for about 20 years, the three states bound together by this river system have fought with one another and the corps over how it should be used, each filing separate lawsuits on behalf of each state's interests.
Alabama wants to make sure Atlanta does not drink all the water before it makes it across Georgia's western border.
Georgia wants to protect its ability to use the river to support development.
And Florida wants the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rethink the water needs of threatened and endangered species whose survival depends on the river's habitat.
It is a water war often described as people versus endangered species, but there are so many more stakes driven in the Chattahoochee's banks.
In the "hyperbole" over the needs for Atlanta's water supply and the continued survival of endangered species in Florida, all the other stakeholders' issues often get lost, said Sally Bethea, executive director of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy organization based in Atlanta.
"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," Bethea said. "... A lot of times it's like, if everything's OK in Lake Lanier and Apalachicola, everything's going to be fine, but that's not true."
And while Bethea focuses on the health of the 120-mile stretch running just below Lake Lanier, there are just as many needs in the river as miles in its basin.
Near the river's headwaters -- and at the smallest section of its drainage basin -- the Chattahoochee is given one of its largest and most fought-over tasks: providing some 4 million people with enough water to drink, flush toilets and irrigate their lawns.
Aiding in that job is a 50-plus-year-old dam that holds back 39,000 acres of water and creates millions of gallons of storage space.
This reservoir is Lake Lanier, the river's largest. The high prices of homes and the prosperity of recreational businesses on its shorelines depend on a healthy lake level.
But the corps, which manages the reservoir, cannot afford to keep Lanier full all the time.
The Chattahoochee has too many more miles to travel.
Once it gives some 377 million gallons of itself to metro Atlanta each day, the Chattahoochee must rush downstream to clean urban waste and provide power to millions in the Southeast before it can rest a while behind a second corps dam.
Along the Alabama line
Reaching toward the eastern edge of Alabama, West Point Dam was primarily built to generate power, control the floods that once plagued the area and provide recreation for the region.
Behind the dam, and just beyond the southern reach of metro Atlanta, the river enjoys a shoreline mostly spared from development.
Its waters are surrounded by some 30,000 acres of tree cover and wildlife. And homes near the lake, located an average of 300 feet from shore, aren't part of the landscape.
"If you're out there fishing along the shore, you don't look up and see somebody's house. It's really wooded; it's a natural setting," said David Barr, the corps supervisory park ranger at West Point Lake. "At night, it's like pitch black out here."
But the water's rural respite doesn't last.
Once the Chattahoochee's current makes it through the 35-mile stretch of West Point Lake, its water goes to work again, rushing through a series of smaller dams to generate hydropower for Georgia Power's 2.3 million customers.
While supplying water is one of the Chattahoochee's biggest jobs, providing power to the Southeast is the single largest use of the river.
"We couldn't run without it," Georgia Power media relations specialist Jeff Wilson said.
On down the fall line
In an urban setting once again, the Chattahoochee winds through downtown Columbus, where Georgia's third largest city is rebuilding its relationship with the waters that created it.
Visionaries here are planning to tear down some of the Chattahoochee's oldest dams, originally built to power textile mills, and restore the river for recreational uses.
Already, the city is building a multiuse trail system on the banks of the river in the hopes that reconnecting with the Chattahoochee will revitalize a post-cotton Columbus.
"We had been disconnected," said Richard Bishop, the president of Uptown Columbus. "We had a downtown, but we really weren't connected to the river."
As it passes through Columbus' city limits, the Chattahoochee, now considered navigable, follows suit with the South and becomes more rural. Its history, too, becomes more evident.
In one of the only colonial settlements still surviving as a municipality, the river meets another corps dam in Fort Gaines.
Walter F. George Dam holds the river back for a while to create hydropower, support navigation and control floods in a river much wider than when it began.
Alligators now sunbathe on its banks. Fishermen wait below the dam to catch trophy-sized bass.
But the river resumes its work, again supporting power generation and economic development.
Just below the Walter F. George and George W. Andrews dams, on a road mostly populated by cows, a nuclear plant owned by Alabama Power is guaranteed a constant flow of 2,000 cubic feet of water per second.
Built in the 1970s, Plant Farley uses the Chattahoochee to instantly generate more than 1,700 megawatts of electricity, which could potentially power 5.1 million homes for an hour.
And on the opposite bank, the river pays the bills. Farmers use the water in dry seasons to wet their fields of peanuts and cotton, and the jobs of some 500 people at an Early County pulpwood facility rely on the river's flows.
Still running south, the Chattahoochee meets its neighbor to the east, the Flint River. The rivers join at one final corps project, Jim Woodruff Dam in Lake Seminole, before taking on a new name and a whole new set of responsibilities.
Apalachicola and its endangered species
Though it powers another coal plant below the dam, for another 112 miles, the river's main -- and most unique -- task is to sustain the position of Florida's panhandle as one of the most biologically diverse regions in the hemisphere.
The survival of endangered and threatened species that use these waters to spawn depends upon the river's connection with backwater swamps and spring-fed sloughs.
And the fresh water that makes its final stop in the Apalachicola Bay creates an environment for the oysters and shrimp on which bay area industries are built.
Here in these final 112 miles, where dredging for navigation destroyed habitats for fish and mussels years ago, anxiety over upstream consumption is compounded.
Whatever happens upstream, whatever is taken away, is hard to ignore.
"As a lot of this habitat is gone, when the river drops down below about 9,000 (cubic feet of water per second flowing from Woodruff Dam) -- and definitely when it's down at 5,000 cfs (as it was during the 2007 drought) -- we have in essence lost the habitat in the river," said Ted Hoehn of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "It is basically a sand, mud-bank river."
While upstream lakes have regained their levels from the 2007 drought, the species and the industries dependent on the river's waters on the lower end of the basin are just beginning to recover from the recent drought.
"When we get that drought, the whole bay just turned to salt water, (the oysters) just didn't grow. The shrimping wasn't as good, nothing was as good," recalled oysterman Walt Nowling as he maneuvered his boat through the estuary. "But since we had all that fresh water last year, this bay's coming back. ... You can make a good living right now. It ain't as good as it should be, but it's getting better."
Learning to share
When the rain gives each stakeholder his share, as it has for the last year, the water flows along, undisputed.
But in times of drought, swords are drawn as political, environmental and industrial warriors fight for their interests.
And as decisions are handed down in the lawsuits filed by the leaders of Georgia, Florida and Alabama over the management of the river system, there still seems to be no clear path to resolution.
A federal judge ruled in 2009 that Georgia does not have the right to use the majority of water it pulls from Lake Lanier for water supply. That same judge, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson, is considering the legality of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's opinion on the needs of the endangered species in Florida.
Georgia has appealed the first ruling, though Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has pledged to negotiate an agreement over how to share the water with Florida and Alabama's governors by the time he leaves office in December.
Those talks have been infrequent and, so far, unsuccessful.
While the end is not in sight, there do seem to be early efforts at compromise with an all-inclusive river basin stakeholders' group.
Though some are skeptical of resolution, most applaud the group's attempt at bringing all the stakeholders to the table.
It is, at least, a step forward, according to Joe Maltese, the former assistant city manager in LaGrange and a member of the governing board of the newly formed Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Stakeholders group.
To Maltese, the stakeholder group is a unique forum for people committed to solutions in a decades-long struggle that he won't call a "water war."
Instead, Maltese looks at the Southeast's struggle over resources much the way George Sherk, the Colorado law professor, does.
"Water wars in the United States just don't end, ever," Maltese said. "These conflicts that we see, history has borne out that ... they're more like volcanoes. You go through times where there's big eruptions of hot issues, and then you may go times where they're just idle with a few rumbling earthquakes. Five years later, something else blows up."
Still, Maltese said he is optimistic that the stakeholder group is the vehicle to a compromise that can be sustained no matter the political leadership.
"We're the ones that are responsible for (the river) at the end of the day, and we all live with it, use it in different ways -- everywhere from industry and manufacturing to seafood to recreation and water production, you name it," Maltese said.
And while they are all at the table, negotiating in a transparent manner never before seen in this tri-state struggle, the group has miles to go before it finds any laurels to rest on, as another board member, Charles Stripling, warned at a recent group meeting.
"Let's not get too excited here folks," Stripling said, echoing the words of Winston Churchill. "This is not the end. ... This is not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning."
Information from: The Times, http://www.gainesvilletimes.com