Metro Atlanta’s exploding thirst for water is like a dirty bomb sending shock waves from its sewers to the sea. Not even the Altamaha River, one of the “75 Last Great Places on Earth,” is safe.
Atlanta Magazine | September 2002
The boy had come to the river with his father on a warm Saturday in May, a perfect day for water. But because neither of them could swim, it had been an ill-fated outing from the start, beginning, perhaps, with a few splashy kicks across an Altamaha River sandbar and ending with a fatal misstep into one of its many deep holes. Now, as a dive team scanned the largest downstream eddy, a cluster of family and friends sat fastened to the riverbank like flood-gnarled stumps. Immobile with grief, they hung their heads in sad juxtaposition to a group of 80 or so folks who had come to the same dusty landing for a picnic.
They were water people, the others—fishermen and farmers and homegrown river revivalists milling near a handsome blue awning stretched over tables of sweet tea, fried bream and coleslaw. Gathered in the shade of a large oak tree, they hugged and chatted and chewed. A few even gave speeches about their river, though not without occasional glances past the rescuers and down the silently curving aisle of brown water.
“I don’t know if they’re going to let us put in or not,” said John “Crawfish” Crawford, as he picked at his lunch atop a soggy paper plate. Fortyish, bear-bellied and bearded under a white straw brim, Crawfish is a University of Georgia marine science specialist and naturalist and a central figure at these annual river celebrations, something of a local legend. In 1982, he and a small group of kindred spirits built the last timber raft ever to ply the Altamaha, an enormous, historically accurate tupelo and slash-pine barge they’d piloted all the way to Darien over the course of a month. Dubbed “youthful idealists” at the time, 20 years later their shared adventure still brings them to the water’s edge for an annual float. Every 10 years, Crawfish and his band of river rats, called Rafthands, descend the original 150-mile stretch by canoe and kayak, an eight-day pilgrimage born in the long, lazy pull of Georgia’s greatest river.
Recently listed as one of the most endangered rivers in America—largely due to rampant development in metro Atlanta—the Altamaha is also classified by The Nature Conservancy as an international bioreserve and one of the “75 Last Great Places on Earth.” Its jungly flood plain, five miles wide in places, is home to at least 120 endangered or rare plants and animals, perhaps Georgia’s largest unprotected wilderness. Certain species, like the Altamaha spiny mussel, are found nowhere else on earth, and three-quarters of the migratory shore-birds in the western hemisphere spend at least part of every year in the Altamaha delta. The sweeping, back-bent river spans up to 400 feet across and is painted with pristine sandbars around nearly every turn, offering a fierce beauty that insinuates itself into the soul of first-time visitors and old hands alike.
Eventually, the Rafthands flotilla receives a downstream pass from the sheriff, and as Crawfish slowly paddles his 17-foot tripping canoe to the far shore, the rest of us follow stroke by uneasy stroke, quietly hugging the rooty bank. While rescuers shuttle fresh divers to the search site, specially trained dogs stand fast on the bow of another boat, their noses twitching just above waterline. Lately, the locals in the bait shops and meat ’n’ threes along the Altamaha basin have been speaking of their river “falling out” faster than usual. Year after year, they say, the water does not stay up like it used to, although on this day, as we slip downstream of the heat-shimmered drama to starboard, there seems to be plenty of water in the river. Too much water.
Nonetheless, in two months of research into the connection between Georgia’s biggest river and its biggest city, which culminated in a three-day float with Rafthands, the oft-repeated concern about a lack of flow through this “forgotten river” of the coastal plain has begun to sound like the echoes of a warning shot bouncing off the four corners of the entire state. Deep into our fifth year of drought and our third decade of unprecedented growth, we may be running out of fresh water, and in the process damaging the very rivers that supply it. The cause, in considerable measure, is the slowly exploding dirty bomb of metro Atlanta, whose shock waves of pollution, urban sprawl, road-building and water consumption can be felt for hundreds of square miles on land and as far downstream as the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Drunk on a vision of limitless expansion, it is becoming apparent that we have too many straws in the drink. Metro Atlanta’s quest for water to fuel future growth has become a threat not only to downstream users along watersheds such as the Altamaha, Flint, Etowah and Chattahoochee, but right here at home. Ironically, next month marks the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Clean Water Act, prompting Congress to proclaim 2002 as the nation’s “Year of Clean Water.”
Here in Georgia, that milestone is being marked by a potential water crisis that is evident in everything from academic reports to newspaper editorials, from 10 years of acrid water wars with neighboring states to the recently muddied taps in Buckhead, sporadic boiling advisories and ongoing bickering over water in Lake Lanier. While Atlanta officials take to task the city’s privately owned water supplier for breach of contract, state government is paying some South Georgia farmers not to irrigate. While county-level water restrictions have become an annual harbinger of summer, at least one gubernatorial candidate, Bill Byrne, is making water the focus of his current bid for office.
We have experienced drought in the past, of course, but never in combination with such demand. With 17 of the top 100 fastest-growing counties in the U.S. right here in Georgia, water management is no longer simply an issue of quality. It has become a battle over quantity, and its next frontier could very well be the obscure and relatively pristine watershed of the Altamaha, whose headwaters reach like fragile capillaries into Georgia’s fastest growing region.
With intense interest in preserving its wilderness character as well as providing adequate flow downstream, the river is inseparable from the future of water use in this state. For that reason, the national environmental organization American Rivers recently named the Altamaha No. 7 on its annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. According to American Rivers, reservoir building, proposed power plants, chronic pollution and increasing demands for water withdrawal could leave the river’s lower stretches in perpetual drought. Others, such as longtime Georgia Environmental Protection Division director Harold Reheis, roundly dispute that assertion. It is, after all, our most intact watershed—the second largest river on the Atlantic slope and the largest undammed river east of the Mississippi. There are no major impoundments for several hundred more miles up its two primary arms, the Ocmulgee and the Oconee rivers, and from their confluence to the sea the Altamaha’s 137 free-flowing miles are crossed only seven times by roads or bridges.
Covering one-quarter of the landmass of Georgia, the combined Altamaha-Oconee-Ocmulgee watershed is home to one-fifth of our total population, its vast system a liquid mirror of the state. Born in the bedroom communities of Atlanta and Athens, the twin prongs of the river roll southeastward through the sweet-onion, tobacco and cotton country of Middle Georgia, before combining forces at Lumber City to plow south into the salt-crust landscape of crabbers, shrimpers and fishermen near Darien, where its brackish estuary supports nearly one-third of the state’s total annual shrimp catch.
But like the river itself, the story of the Altamaha has many tributaries along that course, each with its own personality, each with someone claiming the river as their own. They don’t always agree on methodology, or even on the river’s allegedly imperiled status, but none disputes the river’s relevance to our future, nor ours to it. Equally clear is the fact that, unlike Atlanta’s Chattahoochee, long muddied by the political undertows of three different states, the Altamaha lies completely within our boundaries. Whatever problems are to be found along its course, they are Georgia’s problems from sewer to sea.
WHEREAS MANY OF our great rivers are born in crystalline springs and mountain seeps, the mighty Altamaha traces the eastern half of its lineage to a weedy vacant lot north of Athens, and the western half directly back to the sewers of Atlanta. Few know that better than Scott Petersen, a South River activist not above clambering up the stinking guts of a suspect culvert pipe, or making a spectacle of himself by staging bridge protests with the odious “Mr. Fecal,” a plywood effigy he uses to drive home his message that too many of Georgia’s rivers—and the politicians and bureaucrats charged with protecting them—are full of crap.
“Even on a good day, the South River’s fecal coliform count is exceptionally high,” says Petersen, slinging his machete at the trailside vegetation below the Hwy. 155 bridge off Snapfinger Road. Dressed in jeans, Hawaiian shirt and Panama hat, he slashes at the greenbrier, poison ivy and Chinese privet with quirky abandon. An insurance salesman and registered nurse by trade, Petersen is the self-styled Indiana Jones of DeKalb’s South River, and this morning he has invited a small group of interested folks for a paddling tour of what he believes is Atlanta’s worthiest, yet most neglected, river.
Beginning in the shadow of the gold dome among sewerized remains of the Altamaha’s historic northwestern headwaters, the South River is one of the worst victims of Atlanta’s combined-sewer-overflow problem. From there, the river heads south to Lake Jackson, where it combines with two other beleaguered metro area rivers, the Yellow and Alcovy, to form the Ocmulgee.
“DeKalb County made a deal with the devil years ago,” says Petersen, “In order to get Dunwoody’s waste treated at Atlanta’s Clayton plant, they allowed the City of Atlanta to dump into the South River. They sacrificed South DeKalb in order to develop North DeKalb,” he says, noting South DeKalb’s heavily minority communities. “It’s a black-white thing. A north-south thing.”
Atlanta’s topography, however, may have been an even greater determinant than class politics. Many metro counties, such as Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett, get most or all of their water from the Chattahoochee. But because a subcontinental divide bisects those counties— separating the Altamaha watershed from the Chattahoochee—the ’Hooch water has to be pressurized and pumped over that ridge. In a process known as “interbasin transfer,” the water is used, treated and then simply allowed to flow downhill to the nearest available basin: the Altamaha’s South River. It works well enough in dry conditions. But because the South is so entangled with the City of Atlanta’s ancient sewer and storm water facilities, whenever it rains more than about an inch, the system overflows with “a direct bowel movement” into the river.
Yet, despite its poor water quality, graffiti-scrawled overpasses and piles of bloated flotsam, the river itself is quite intact. It tumbles over granite ledges through the bedrock region of South DeKalb, still a largely rural, tranquil retreat from the urban snarl just a few miles north. Because the stream corridor is still relatively whole, Petersen and his ally in the DeKalb County Commission, Gale Walldorff, are floating this morning to survey areas suitable for green space acquisition. With a recently passed DeKalb bond referendum and support from The Trust For Public Land, they envision a greenway that will eventually stretch from Atlanta to Panola Mountain. Public access, they believe, could lead to greater interest in protecting the South’s water quality, which now relies on adequate flow to dilute contaminants ranging from human waste to brake lining dust. “The old saying ‘dilution is the solution’ is wrong,” says Petersen. “We need to look at every drop as cherishable.”
Around noon, Petersen pulls ashore for a lunch break. With his Panama hat tilted jauntily back, he reclines atop a small prow of granite, barefoot and soaked to the calf. Munching a sprout and salami sandwich, he seems sublimely at home, somehow able to ignore the steady stream of rotted basketballs and mud-caked bleach bottles. When we come to a fallen log blocking the river, Petersen is quickly out of his canoe, splashing and pushing the white-knuckled commissioner across the impasse, happily standing hip deep in water that most people wouldn’t let their dog swim in.
DESPITE THE ABUSED STATUS of feeder rivers like the South and Yellow, farther downstream the debate truly turns to water supply rather than water quality. This is due in practical terms to the ongoing drought, but due in principle to conflicting philosophies over reservoir building. Of the approximately 15 new impoundments currently proposed in Georgia, five lie in the upper Altamaha watershed. One of the most contentious is a 1,477 acre reservoir sought by Henry County on a small tributary of Lake Jackson called Tussahaw Creek. Henry County, the sixth fastest-growing in the nation, has claimed that the new lake is necessary to meet future water demand. Environmentalists insist it is just one more example of water-hogging by municipalities, industry and developers that could result in perpetually low flows in our rivers. Georgia, they note, is already the most heavily dammed state in the South.
“You know why reservoirs get developed?” asks Harold Reheis, veteran director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and a reservoir proponent. He cites Georgia’s stream-flow protection policies that mandate water users build reservoirs rather than simply stick a pipe into a watershed and suck it dry. What the EPD calls good planning, however, environmentalists view as a vicious cycle of reservoir-building to promote more growth, which creates increased demand and ever more reservoirs. Dams fragment river systems, alter biological communities, replace natural flow regimes with artificial releases (sometimes at drought levels), and waste huge amounts of water to surface evaporation.
“The pace of reservoir-building in Georgia is more troublesome than anywhere else in the South,” says American Rivers southeastern representative David Sligh, who worked with grassroots groups in Georgia to designate the Altamaha as endangered.
Nonetheless, in May 2001, the Georgia EPD gave Henry County the necessary certification to proceed with the Tussahaw Creek Reservoir, fending off a suit filed by local landowner Latrelle Brewster, who for several years has fought to keep the Tussahaw project from flooding land that has been in her family since 1872. She is not alone in her opposition. In a February 2001 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited Henry County’s failure to establish the need for the reservoir or to consider conservation measures, as well as an inadequate level of environmental documentation and serious concerns about the impact of flows in Tussahaw Creek. Officials in Butts County, where the dam would actually be built, have proposed instead cleaning up Lake Jackson and using it as a regional water supply.
That could save money and force greater emphasis on cleaning up the South, Alcovy and Yellow Rivers, Jackson’s main feeders. But the Georgia EPD directive has been clear.
“There are some who just don’t like dams, including the EPA,” said Reheis during a lengthy interview in his downtown office. Standing by zigs and zags a bony six-foot-four inches tall, he is a reserved but firm host, offering his rebuttals to environmentalists’ concerns in a classically measured, bureaucratic tone. “The question …” he says, slowly nudging a yellow highlighter around the Altamaha River basin on a map atop his conference table, “ … is whether or not we have an endangered river.”
And whether Atlanta is the culprit.
His answer is no and his case is simple. Because of interbasin transfer from the Chattahoochee, says Reheis, the metro Atlanta region is actually adding to the river’s flow. Furthermore, based on all permitted water withdrawals and returns along the Altamaha in 2001, the net water loss in the lower river is almost zero, says Reheis, who claims that the real impact is not from developing the metro Atlanta area but from agricultural withdrawal, which is unmetered in Georgia. Reheis taps a few figures into a calculator. “Consumptive water loss along the Altamaha River on long-term average is just over one percent,” he says, sliding the calculator aside. “That doesn’t sound like a lot to me.”
It’s a numbers-don’t-lie, engineering approach to water management, though lacking the breadth of scope that environmentalists would like to see from the state’s top environmental protector. “There’s no investigation of how all these permits for impoundments and withdrawal and discharge interact with each other,” says Georgia River Network executive director Ellen Sutherland. “And there’s no real analysis of the environmental impact of future growth created by these new reservoirs.”
Recognizing the complexities of the issue, the 2001 Georgia legislature mandated the ponderously titled Joint Comprehensive Water Plan Study Committee to evaluate the issues on a statewide level. The initial report of the 23-member committee and its 50-member advisory panel is due this month. “Meanwhile, permits are being issued that tie the hands of the planners,” says GRN’s Sutherland. “The water has already been reserved, rendering the whole planning process moot.” Sutherland, American Rivers, Altamaha Riverkeeper and others have lobbied EPD and the governor for a moratorium on new impoundments until the planning process is complete.
“What do they think I ought to do? Tell everybody that until we know everything we ought to know that we’ll just have to put everything on hold? Just let everybody sit there and stew?” asks Reheis. “The legislature didn’t say anything about stopping the world.” Asked whether conservation measures should be more fully considered in weighing new permits, Reheis says simply, “They’re good. And we’ll be doing more of that.”
“They haven’t looked at other alternatives (at Tussahaw) and conservation has not been mentioned once,” says Latrelle Brewster, who along with GRN sued the state and lost, bringing the Tussahaw project and others like it one step closer to ground-breaking. In April, a regional reservoir off the Oconee river near Athens—named in a USA Today report as having the 16th worst sprawl in the nation—came on line after a 20-year battle between county planners and environmentalists. Nearby Walton County has proposed its own $45 million dollar reservoir on the Altamaha’s Hard Labor Creek to meet demand out to 2030. A recent UGA study, however, claimed that those needs could be better met by conservation and price structures, and that the cumulative impact of reservoir-building on our rivers is becoming irreversible.
Nonetheless, water planners have seen the future, and it is a dry one. In mid-May of this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released figures showing that Atlanta’s water consumption increased at an unsustainable rate through the mid- to late-’90s. Three times in the last three years the city exceeded maximum water consumption limits it wasn’t expected to meet until 2030. Future withdrawal increases from Lake Lanier could take congressional approval, and if the water doesn’t come from the Chattahoochee, it will have to come from surrounding basins such as the Altamaha.
“The water is being held upstream,” says Jon Ambrose, manager of the Department of Natural Resources’ Georgia Natural Heritage Program. “Local communities are saying, ‘If we don’t get the water, our growth will stop.’ There is a scramble by counties to get their water supply reservoir on line, and they’re all trying to get the biggest they can because they know that if they don’t use it they can sell the surplus.”
Brewster says simply, “What we’re seeing around the state is a water grab. Get it before someone else does.”
A FEW WEEKS LATER and a hundred or more miles downstream, as our flotilla bobs along on this river nearly as wide as two football fields, it is hard to believe there is a problem—here or anywhere else in the world. Camp on the first evening of our float is a sandbar on the edge of a dry cut, a secondary riverbed that is being sawn deeper each passing spring. Under a pink-and-lavender sunset, the group lounges at water’s edge, cracking open beers and pitching tents in a warm upstream breeze. Just beyond the mouth of the cut, Crawfish has undertaken his daily ritual, baptizing a good day’s paddle by wallowing in the shallows, his gnarly black beard dragging in the current.
“Non-profits often paint things in the most dire way, and you get the impression that it’s all going to die tomorrow. That’s just not the case.”
That night the sky is black and deep over the river. Venus, Mars and Jupiter hang aligned and glinting above a driftwood fire. Chuck ’O Wills and barred owls trade insults beyond the glow.
One member of our group is Janisse Ray, the Baxley-born author of the recently acclaimed book Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Newly married, she and her husband are paddling the whole 150 miles with Crawfish and a few other long-distance souls. Raven-haired, fortyish, her book has brought recognition to the region through its stark depictions of rural poverty, mental illness and a variegated landscape of environmental abuse and awe.
“I have mixed emotions about this river being called endangered,” she says in her buttermilk drawl.
“Why is that?” I ask.
Barefoot and dusted with river sand, she squats to push the coals closer together with a stick, then pops to her feet and sweeps her arms up and down the massive watercourse. “There aren’t too many places left in the world where you can do this. You know? I mean, look around. There’s nobody, and I worry about what will happen when people find out about it.”
CHARLIE FORD, for one, wants people to know about his river. “It’s a fine ‘ole river now,” he says, piloting a croupy johnboat past the confluence of the Ocmulgee and the Oconee. There the Altamaha’s two major arms collide east and west like liquid freight trains, stacking up in coffee-colored boils before straightening themselves into a single scouring force in search of the sea. Normally, Charlie would be in a touring kayak, either paddling by himself or leading a group downstream with his river-guiding business. But today, nauseating headaches and waves of disequilibrium have confined him to the johnboat. Complaining of a bad case of vertigo, he had just the previous evening tried to put off my request for a tour of the confluence. But because I had already made plans to come down, and was insistent, he’d toughed it out.
Ford is not exactly what you’d call an environmentalist. The word, in fact, leaves a bad taste in his mouth, and he believes the “endangered” card has been overplayed.
“Non-profits often paint things in the most dire way, and you get the impression that it’s all going to die tomorrow. That’s just not the case,” says Ford, who has clashed with groups such as Altamaha Riverkeeper (ARK) over its take-no-prisoners approach to river defense. He is discernibly bitter about ARK’s involvement (among other parties), in a lawsuit that shut down local employer Amercord, Inc., which made steel belts for tires and had a notorious history of dumping copper and arsenic into the Ocmulgee. “What it didn’t appear to think about was the number of people who worked there to pay for their double-wide,” says Ford. According to Ford, when Amercord shut down, the struggling communities in and around Lumber City lost 400 jobs in one day.
While acknowledging that efforts to hold polluters accountable are vital, Ford believes that with so much emphasis on economy versus ecology, environmentalists have overlooked a vital third element in the South Georgia landscape—culture. Environmentalists, he says, must be more inclusive of the region’s rural populace, to whom the idea of something as nebulous as ecology can seem downright communistic. “We need positive stuff for our region, and what we have are groups that hold people up and groups that are divisive…. But if you don’t have the buy-in of the public into that ideology, then you can’t have any change.”
Ford’s own buy-in is with a group called Altamaha River Partnership, a coalition of municipalities, industry, recreationists and local residents less interested in attacking river-abusers than in finding more responsible ways to use it. Sparked in part by a Georgia Tech study on the potential for nature-based tourism in the region, ARP hopes to promote the Altamaha as a world-class destination for nature lovers, bird watching, paddling, fishing, camping and other outdoor activities. If the idea can catch fire in the communities, Ford believes it could stave off local willingness to allow more abusive industries alongside the river in the name of jobs at any cost.
“If the people can’t survive, then what good is the environment? But if the environment can’t survive, then neither will the people.”
“We’re in a cultural change down here. I’ve done five river cleanups in the last (three) years, and we’re starting to see more and more local volunteers,” says Ford, a native of Hazlehurst, which recently produced limited but vocal opposition to a tissue-paper plant’s proposal to locate along the river, a plan that in years past might have been automatically embraced. “We have to keep South Georgia alive, and we have to keep the abundance of nature we have alive, and they feed each other. People down here know that; they just don’t always acknowledge it.”
Ironically, the largest pool of tourists for the area’s natural treasures is probably Atlanta, the same booming metropolis that folks all across South Georgia—from the Flint River basin to the Altamaha—claim is hoarding the water. “People want to see the rivers fill up again, but they know that as long as Atlanta is up there, they won’t in the near future, and if they build more reservoirs, they won’t in the far future.”
Near the end of our tour, Ford putters his sagging johnboat into a backwater he calls “Charlie’s Cove,” a half-mile slough where the shade grows thick beneath moss-hung cypress, bayberry and willow. The air tastes of flower blossoms, and the gothic canopy is full of birdsong. “This is our Eden, and we have to respect Eden more,” says Ford. “If the people can’t survive, then what good is the environment? But if the environment can’t survive, then neither will the people.”
Finally, he gives the motor’s rope a reluctant pull for home. His headaches and profuse sweating have abated. The river, he says, has brought him back to life. A week later, however, he checked himself into a hospital, where he learned that on the day he took me to see his river—the river he would “take a bullet for”—he was suffering from the early stages of multiple sclerosis.
IN RECENT YEARS, scientists have come to understand that some of the smallest inhabitants of a watershed can make the biggest statement about its health. In the case of the Altamaha, it’s the lowly mussel, a clam-like organism found there in fascinating variety and abundance. As living filters, they are especially sensitive to variations in water quality and flow.
“That’s an Altamaha slab shell . . . that’s an elephant ear . . . this is an Altamaha lance,” says former DNR biologist and now assistant professor at Georgia State University Chris Skelton, as he mucks around the riverbed with his chin barely above water. Within minutes of beaching his boat on a thunderous Tuesday in April, he has plucked a potluck of mussel types from a submerged sandbar. “And this one,” he says, letting go a slight grin, “this is the Altamaha . . . rayed . . . pink . . . fatmucket.”
At the time, as the state’s non-game aquatic biologist, Skelton spent many days astream in Georgia, on this occasion donning a wetsuit, scuba gear and a knife (for cutting himself free of catfish trotlines). Though some scientists chase more glamorous species like bears and wolves, Skelton, who holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology, spends his time setting crayfish traps and diving for mussels with no less certainty of mission. “We’re just beginning to understand that mussels can tell us as much about what is going on with rivers as anything,” he says.
Of all the Altamaha’s diverse wildlife, none may be as emblematic of the river itself as the Altamaha spiny mussel, a bristly oddball of the mussel world found nowhere else on earth. Considered an “indicator species,” long-term declines in the spiny mussel population have some asking whether the drop may be symptomatic of an overall depression in river health, although there is still much to learn about the impact that water-use patterns in, say, Atlanta or Athens, may have this far downstream.
Skelton believes that most mussel species in the Altamaha are in relatively good health. It’s a sign that the water quality this far down is still fairly high, and one of the reasons that American Rivers named the Altamaha as endangered in the first place—because of how much there is to lose. But the Altamaha, it seems, is really the exception to the rule when it comes to Georgia’s surface-water resources. Over a barbecue sandwich in Lumber City, I asked him how he would assess the overall status of our rivers.
“On the edge,” he says.
“On the edge of what?”
“Of being dead.”
IT IS EXACTLY THAT EDGE that keeps James Holland out on the water, looking for trouble. It’s his river, too, and at 61 he is the first official river keeper for the non-profit group Altamaha Riverkeeper. Friendly in the way of a coastal country boy, Holland is nonetheless an imposing figure behind the center console of his 20-foot bay boat. Six-foot-two and raw boned, his brown forearms are scarred with a constellation of recently removed skin cancers earned over decades of working crab pots. When we slide his boat into the lower Altamaha Delta near Darien and fly upstream, it’s obvious that he has spent a lifetime on the water.
As we wind past alligators lolling in the mudflats, lily pads rock in our wake, and colony after colony of fiddler crabs skitter up the silt-slick bank. Cattle egrets flutter off each upstream bend. When Holland shouts over the roar of his outboard it is in an angry and defiant tone, with a lone yellow tusk jutting up from his left lower jaw. And when he stops shouting about the problems of his river, his mouth snaps suddenly shut in a tooth-poor grimace turned down at the corners as sharply as a staple. It is a pissed-off face. A fighter’s face.
“If we don’t fight for the water down here, we won’t get any,” says Holland, who gave up crabbing because of a decline in the quantity and quality of the catch, all the sick and dying ones, as he put it. “I started looking around and decided it was because of low flow,” he says, citing inadequately diluted contaminants as a major negative impact on the Altamaha’s sensitive marsh ecosystem. “The timber industry has basically drained South Georgia. We have no riverside swamps down here anymore …. We’ve lost the flow from our ground-water and springs.”
In addition to driving demand far upstream in metro Atlanta, the current drought, he believes, is allowing South Georgia timber interests to move further into previously inaccessible Altamaha wetlands, clearcutting and ditching while the land is dry. According to Holland, such extensive drainage, along with the uncountable square miles of asphalt and concrete all along the river from Atlanta to Darien, cause a “freshet effect” that is destroying the Altamaha’s natural rise and fall. Because the rain-water is not allowed to soak in, it now runs off too rapidly. Nor is it available to recharge underground aquifers, connected to major rivers like the Altamaha in ways not entirely understood. The result is too much flow during storms and not enough water seeping into the river during critical low-flow periods. Rather than building up slowly and staying in the floodplain for weeks at a time, says Holland, the river now rises and falls more like a toilet flush.
Skimming through the braided network of channels in the immense Altamaha delta, Holland suddenly banks and cuts through Stud Horse Creek, zipping us back into the main river. There the water takes on a darkish color and the greasy odor of pulpwood. “Wait another month and it will look the color of that,” shouts Holland, tapping the shiny black knob of his engine throttle.
The source lies approximately 30 miles upstream in Jesup at one of the world’s largest paper mills, Rayonier, whose miles-long and foul-smelling black plume of wastewater is well documented. Last year, Riverkeeper reached an out-of-court settlement with Rayonier in one of the first of what promises to be a long number of conflicts the group has eagerly but sometimes painfully engaged.
“We are the professional tattletale,” says Riverkeeper executive director Deborah Sheppard. “And it gets personal in a small town, but it’s our job to take the heat.” A recent editorial in the Darien newspaper blasted Altamaha Riverkeeper for questioning a popular waterfront renewal project in Darien. Others have suggested that Riverkeeper’s find-’em-and-sue-’em tactics, which have played heroically in Atlanta, alienates South Georgia’s more blue-collar working communities and makes it difficult for other, less polarizing groups.
Despite such turf tussles, Riverkeeper’s strategy is clean, precise and effective. The group recently succeeded in getting Rayonier to settle in a legal dispute over its discharge permit. Riverkeeper has opened dialogue with the timber giant about how to improve its environmental performance, and is looking into the water-treatment practices of dozens of small municipalities up and down the river. They have also gotten summary judgments in three cases based on the permit holders’ own self-reported violations not being enforced by the state. “If EPD was doing its job, we wouldn’t have a job,” says Shelton.
That same aggressive posture, however, may be shutting ARK out of the highest levels of water planning discussions set up by the state. While the industry-friendly and non-confrontational Nature Conservancy (considered by many to be the most effective group on the river) is represented on the board of the governor’s statewide planning committee, hellraisers like Holland and Sheppard find themselves on obscure “box checking” committees.
“It’s a scam,” says Holland, who calls the statewide study plan “a bone” pitched to the rest of the state following the formation of the 16-county Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District. “All these studies are just designed to make us feel good while Atlanta gets itself some water. They are moving forward no matter what studies are going on. Get the water at any cost.”
As a consequence, ARK continues to look farther upstream in its efforts. Holland rides a tense vigil upriver, following his nose from pipe to pipe, keeping one eye on the growing stack of citizen complaints and the other eye on water levels. He’s worried about a proposal by Reynolds Plantation, a sprawling gated community on Lake Oconee, to withdraw 13 to 14 million gallons of water a day from the system. Enron recently proposed a new power plant on the upper Oconee that would lose 80 percent of its water to steam discharge. The plan was scuttled following Enron’s collapse, but the site remains attractive to similar interests. And he’s concerned that DeKalb County is feeling federal pressure to begin returning its wastewater discharges into the Chattahoochee rather than the Altamaha.
“We don’t even have any idea how much of this river is s–t water,” says Holland. “And it may sound strange, but we need that water. That’s how bad it is.”
IT’S NOON ON my third and last day on the river, and the Rafthands are loitering on a sandbar, nibbling cheese and crackers, sipping warm beer and forestalling the takeout for several of us a few miles downstream. Crawfish is sitting cross-legged in the shade of a river willow, Buddha-like, lifting handfuls of quartz sand in his fingers and watching it filter into glittering mounds at his bare feet.
“The river isn’t just the water,” he says. “It’s all the water and everything you can see here, all the way back into the floodplain for miles on both sides.” He drops the sand to gesture far across the river and behind us into the bone-dry coulees pocked with deer, hog and bobcat tracks, which disappear into miles of Ogeechee lime, cypress and longleaf pine. “It begins by protecting all of this.”
All of “this,” as Crawfish explains, is what can best be described as the river’s cycle, the annual interplay between land and water and all that lives therein, merged together by flood. Even the glasslike dust of the piedmont sifting through his fingers is important. When that silt is blocked by upstream dams, it disrupts the natural formation of sandbars that provide anchors for the willows and other vegetation. When the floods come—if they come—that organic matter washes back into the river, rebuilding the food chain from the bottom up.
Crawfish says he does not necessarily believe the river will experience perpetual drought, and that some groups are painting a worst-case scenario. As an ecologist, he likely takes the geologic view of things, that, given time, nature is self-correcting. Perhaps even human nature. But sitting on the bank in the sun-parched sand and watching an unfathomable volume of water go by, the river can still look as fragile as it is powerful, perhaps even vengeful.
After returning upstream to retrieve my vehicle, I learned that a fisherman had finally found the body of the boy who went down to the river that same day as us. The stranger who had let me park my truck in his backyard (“Come back anytime,” he said) told me that the child had drowned right there where we launched, and that his father was rescued while clinging to a trotline. It seemed a tragic metaphor offering a bitter lesson. We can keep taking from the river. We can even tempt it. But it’s a deep-running fact that someday the river could just as well take from us. ✦