Thursday, October 15, 2009

Chattahoochee, A Curious River Float

David Hanson is a writer, teacher and friend of NEMO. His background is in field-science and he has a passion for travel. Check out his most recent project below.

September - December 2009
Beginning in late September I will take an old-fashioned, two-person We-No-Nah canoe down the length of the Chattahoochee River through Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. It will take about three months to cover the 540 miles. I’m doing this mainly because I want to meet people and hear their stories along the way. Things like life, rivers, and speech move slowly down here. So will I.

I grew up in Atlanta, a city that sources water for its exploding population from the 'Hooch. A "Water War" is being fought between the river's three host states and a recent judge ruling upheld the original charter for the Corps of Engineers' management of the water and reservoirs of the Chattahoochee River basin (aka the ACF Basin for Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Rivers). GA, FL, and AL have less than three years to come to a new agreement on water allocation. The results of this debate could set vital precedents for water resource management in the southeast and nationally. The next great conservation effort will be water and the Chattahoochee could turn out to be Ground Zero for policy and management discussion.

I will travel its length solo, looking at the people and life along the river corridor and conducting water quality tests with school groups whenever possible.

Launch, 100-Year-Flood, E.Coli
It starts with a bang. On Sunday, Sept 21, my launch day, I watched the upper Chattahoochee rise from 1.25 feet to, some say, 12 feet in 12 hours. The rain came down in sheets and the water rose in brown waves that carried full trees down its bowling alley corridor. I left Morpheus, my canoe, at a friend's riverside cabin where I was staying and we kayaked in the whitewater for three days as levels dropped off. By Tuesday, I had strung together the four upper sections (barring the stretch above and through Helen, GA). I rode the final push of flood water 30 miles, out of the mountains and into Lake Lanier.

After a long flat three days paddling on Lanier, sleeping on islands, and working with a student group at the Elachee Nature Center, I portaged Buford Dam and suddenly found myself in a beautiful strip of cold, clear, river and dense riparian forest surrounded by Metro Atlanta suburbs. I ran through the trails beside the river and popped out at manicured lawns and cul-de-sacs and carpools. I slept by the river in the woods. This is the epicenter of the development that needs so much water from Lanier to sustain itself. This is the heart of the Water Wars.

Poo Scare
I approached Atlanta on day seven, a week after floods had blown through the city, causing widespread damage to homes and schools and commercial buildings. E.Coli warnings began to appear in news reports. Bacteria levels had risen to over 30 times normal due to sewer systems and entire treatment plants having to expel raw sewage into the river and tributaries. I paddled one long day north of Atlanta - the river here a wild stretch of hardwood-bordered beauty - and took out 20 miles above the worst of the treatment plant spills.

I taught at the Lovett School, located on the river bank. The seventh grade science classes helped me record a water quality test and we discussed water stewardship practice. Levels have since dropped back to "normal," though the 'Hooch through here, while scenic on the surface and surprisingly unfettered by streamside development, remains a damaged river due to the daily cocktail of toxins running off from neighborhoods, parking lots and roadways, golf courses, industry, etc.

Back on the river tomorrow (Oct 5) for the worst of the worst through south Atlanta and then soutwesterly for 70 miles to the West Point Lake and the border with Alabama.

Week three: South Atlanta to West Point Lake
By far the most filthy river stretch in the whole Chattahoochee system and possibly one of the most wretchedly polluted rivers in the country. Atlanta simply unleashes its waste into the 'Hooch. It is usually heavily sedated/treated with chemicals, but following the 100-year-flood event of the last two weeks, raw sewage has been running straight into the river. E. Coli levels hit 170,000 ppm with the max for safe recreational use being 235 ppm. I floated on but it was nasty. The banks had slid away leaving steep, crumbling messes covered in downed trees and a few inches of greasy sediment. Plastic bags, paddles, toy grocery carts, volleyballs, yard ornaments clung to the branches of trees twenty feet over the water. I camped on islands with mounds of trash and I stayed in the barn of a man whose home was flooded. It's still raining down here. Working on 30+ inches in some places, since I began the journey.


For more about David, you can visit his blog.

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