Chattahoochee tops list of ‘most endangered’ waterways in U.S.

The Chattahoochee River basin is the nation’s “most endangered” waterway, a national environmental group claimed Tuesday.

American Rivers cited a generation’s worth of water-sharing fights between Georgia, Alabama and Florida; outmoded river management by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and the ever-looming chance of drought as evidence of the basin’s precariousness.

The basin stretches 550 miles from North Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico and includes the Flint and Apalachicola rivers. With so many masters — metro Atlantans, dam operators, Georgia Power engineers, cotton farmers, West Point kayakers, Florida oystermen — the Chattahoochee can’t satisfy them all.

“The threats we see to the ecosystem in the basin are issues that have been continuing for decades now,” said Ben Emanuel, an associate director with American Rivers. “We need to balance water storage in Lake Lanier with water needs downstream throughout the system. The basin, on the whole, is an example of a river system at a crossroads.”

Emanuel spoke during a recent boat ride down the Chattahoochee to Peachtree Creek, where the city of Atlanta sucks up 180 million gallons of water daily. The river ran fast from the previous night’s rain, its manifold troubles seemingly a world away.

Peachtree Creek, though, is a perfect spot to gauge the river basin’s conflicting needs. Here, nearly 40 years ago, the state set a water flow standard that dictates how much water is kept in metro Atlanta and how much goes downstream. Too little released downstream won’t dilute the wastewater dumped into the Chattahoochee by Atlanta, Cobb County and others. It could also have an impact on drinking water for Columbus, irrigation levels for farmers and the delicate balance of fresh and salt water needed by Apalichicola Bay oysters and endangered species in Florida.

The mandated minimum flow at Peachtree Creek is 750 cubic feet per second, or nearly 500 million gallons of water daily. Georgia last year asked the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the minimum flow to 650 cfs during the winter months. This year, the state’s “water czar” wants the minimum dropped to 550 cfs from November through April, angering downriver users and the Chattahoochee’s nonprofit advocates.

The river’s flow reached nearly 4,000 cfs Thursday.

“We’ve had a lot of recent rain. There’s lots of water in our basin now. But history tells us to expect another drought in the future and we have to be prepared,” Jason Ulseth, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said while anchored at Peachtree Creek. “We are very concerned about water-quality impacts downstream at anything below 750 cfs; 550 cfs is alarming.”

The corps, which dictates when and how much water is released from the upriver Buford Dam, is updating its water-control manual for the Chattahoochee and expects completion by fall 2017. A spokeswoman declined to comment.

Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division requested the corps lower the flow to 550 cfs. In its January request to the corps, water czar Judson Turner said “there are no water quality impacts that would require flows higher than 550 cfs during the winter months.” He added that 550 cfs would also boost water storage at Lake Lanier, metro Atlanta’s main reservoir and the linchpin for the region’s future economic growth.

“While the ACF Basin provides water for municipal and industrial water supply, threatened and endangered species, hydropower generation, agricultural irrigation and critical aquatic species and floodplain habitats, such competing needs do not make it a ‘most endangered’ waterway,” Turner said in a statement Monday.

The Atlanta Regional Commission also found fault with the river report, citing a 10 percent drop in metro Atlanta water usage since 2000 as the population increased 20 percent.

“The report also ignores the state of Florida’s mismanagement of the bay, which allowed the oyster fishery to be devastated by over-harvesting,” Katherine Zitsch, who heads up the ARC’s Natural Resources Division, said in a statement.

The Chattahoochee basin encompasses 20,000 square miles and includes the Flint River in southwest Georgia which, upon joining the Chattahoochee at Lake Seminole, forms the Apalachicola River. Nearly three-fourths of the basin’s population lives in metro Atlanta.

American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental nonprofit tasked with protecting the nation’s waterways, has annually listed the 10 “most endangered” rivers since 1984. The Chattahoochee basin, or one of its tributaries, has appeared 11 times. This is the first year the basin has garnered the top spot.

American Rivers bestowed the unfortunate designation due to “outdated and ineffective methods of water management.”

“While there has been some progress in water conservation over the years, two major droughts within the last decade have hit the region hard, pushing the river system to the breaking point,” the nonprofit said in a press release.

Georgia, Alabama and Florida have fought for 25 years over an equitable apportionment of the rivers’ waters. To no avail. Florida in 2013 asked the U.S. Supreme Court to order Georgia to send more water downstream. The court appointed a “special master” to try to resolve the watery mess.

An independent mediator has held confidential talks with Georgia and Florida officials, including representatives from the governors’ offices, according to recent court filings. A settlement, though, doesn’t appear imminent, much to the dismay of those who depend upon the river basin for their livelihood.

“Our bay has changed drastically in the last 10 years,” said Shannon Hartsfield, the president of an Apalachicola-based seafood workers group. “The life line to our bay is that river. Without enough river flow, we don’t have a productive bay.”

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