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Why the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola River System is in such a mess

Why the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola River System is in such a mess

No one is telling the truth, because they don’t want you to know the truth.  What we have instead is a legion of bubble-headed, 15 second TV blip, journalists turning the machinations of politicians and corporate law firms into a good ole fashion American football game . . . with the taxpayers of Alabama, Florida and Georgia funding the affluent lifestyles of the players on the field.  

The Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola River system has recently been named the most endangered river system in the United States.  That designation, in itself, is an exaggeration and political ploy, but there is no doubt that the destruction of the river system’s ecology, south of Atlanta, was completed in the late 20th century.  However, this war against Mother Nature began the moment the Creeks left and European-American settlers arrived.

A fact conveniently forgotten by all parties concerned is that Alabama, Florida and Georgia enthusiastically supported a massive US Army Corps of Engineers project to convert the Apalachicola-Lower Chattahoochee River into what is essentially today, a barge canal.  While now professing deep concern for the welfare of the lowly oyster,  Florida officials formerly pressured the Corps of Engineers to dredge the Apalachicola River to make it navigable for larger vessels.  They planned to develop the town of Apalachicola into a major seaport.

Nevertheless, allowing politicians and lawyers to divvy up the water resources, as if it was their winnings from a successful court suit, will insure that the situation in this river system will get worse and worse.  Dividing up water resources along political boundaries will do nothing to solve the causes of ecological disaster.  The causes are complex and  transcend political boundaries.


The Chattahoochee River begins at Unicoi Gap, east of Brasstown Bald Mountain in Northeast Georgia. Just beyond the Nacoochee Valley, it drops into an ancient fault gorge and flows southwestward in the fault valley until reaching the Alabama line at Columbus, GA.  From its source to halfway through Metro Atlanta, the Chattahoochee is a sparkling, white water river, where trout, swimmers and canoeists live in harmony.  The river leaves the Metro Atlanta area as silt ridden storm sewer.

Below Columbus, GA and Phenix City, AL, the Chattahoochee flows almost due south through the Gulf Coastal Plain.  It forms the boundary between Alabama and Georgia.  Along the way, a chain of late-20th century reservoirs, built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, evaporate an incalculably massive amount of water from the river system.

Big, bad Atlanta is blamed by Floridians for stealing their water, but Metro Atlanta’s primary sin is turning the river into a sewer.  It is the reservoirs that steal their water . . . helped of course, by agricultural irrigation systems in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.  Yes, it is the reservoirs that provide playgrounds for outboard moterboats and fishermen . . . inflate the price of rural real estate . . . and provide electricity for the citizens of Alabama, Florida and Georgia, who are the water-gulping thieves . . . if one is looking for something to villainize.

Near the point where Alabama, Florida and Georgia come together, the Flint River joins the Chattahoochee to create the Apalachicola River.  From there, the Apalachicola flows generally southward to the Gulf of Mexico.  In Florida, the Apalachicola looks virtually identical to the rivers in the Gulf Coastal Plain of Vera Cruz and Tabasco States in Mexico.  It is a slow, blackwater, sub-tropical river that is closely bounded by dense vegetation.

The Flint River now begins as the polluted runoff from the Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest.  Its source is now buried beneath runways constructed in the 1970s.  Much of the path of the Flint in the Piedmont is through wetlands that filter the stormwaters from the Atlanta suburbs, which now essentially stretch all the way to Macon.

The Flint then crashes through a gap in Pine Mountain as a white water river before soon reaching in the Gulf Coastal Plain.  There it slows down and meanders in the manner of many Coastal Plain rivers.  In the process, it picks up high loads of nitrates from farms and occasional pollution outlets from rural industries that seem able to avoid the EPA.  Cities and towns along the way add to the sewage content of the Flint River in the same manner of its big sister, the Chattahoochee.

Destructive farming practices

The Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola Rivers were our rivers first. Rivers were the “interstate highways” that tied the Creek Confederacy together.  They also provided a bounty of food resources in the form of fish, mussels, turtles and alligators.  The annual flooding of rivers coming out of the mountains rejuvenated the soils of the bottom lands, enabling them to produce large crops without plows.

Prior to the taking of their land by Europeans, Creek surveyors divided up bottom lands into rectangular tracts, sufficient in size to support a household.   In the boundaries between household tracts, it was typical for fruit trees, nut trees, blackberries and raspberries to grow.   This is why you often see these feral plants growing along the edge of Southern farm fields today.  The boundary vegetation stabilized the soil and usually prevented gullies from forming.

The rivers began to die as soon as the European newcomers stripped the landscape to develop cotton plantations. After a few decades, gullies began to form from the destructive erosion, which washed vast amounts of clay and sand into the rivers.  One in Southwest Georgia is now called the “Little Grand Canyon.”  Yes, the gullies are that big!  The Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers took on the color of red Southern clay, mixed with milk, and have stayed that way much of the time for the next century.

The environmentally destructive, European farming methods continued to fill the river with silt and cause periodic flooding until the advent of the Boll Weevil in the 1920s, which drove many farmers off the landscape of Alabama, northern Florida and western Georgia.   At this point, most of the environmental damage was quickly reversible.

In fact, that is exactly what was happening.  As can be seen in the photo at the top of this article, the abandonment of marginal farms on steep slopes in the 1920s caused the river to immediately return to its clarity in the time of Native American ownership.  That was not to last long, however.

A flood on the Chattahoochee River in April 2003. Much of Atlanta's sludge is now being dumped in West Point Lake, north of Columbus. However, after heavy rains the river still runs red with Georgia clay.

A flood on the Chattahoochee River in Columbus, GA – April 2003. Much of Atlanta’s sludge is now being dumped in West Point Lake, north of Columbus. However, after heavy rains the river still runs red with Georgia clay.

Dams, electric power plants and a riverine transportation system

The first damming of the Chattahoochee River occurred immediately prior to the American Civil War at Roswell, north of Atlanta, and at Columbus, which along with Phenix City, is situated at the Fall Line.  In 1868, the Eagle and Phenix dam was constructed to supply power to a textile mill. These dams were modest structures, which steered river water at the top of shoals to turbines that ran industries.  The reservoirs behind these dams were small, since the main purpose of the dams was to stabilize water flow. Nevertheless, they permanently stopped the migration of shad and sturgeon in the Lower Chattahoochee and Native Trout in the Upper Chattahoochee.

Atlanta was a pioneer in electric streetcars.  Although Richmond, VA gets the credit for the first practical, operating electric trolley, in reality, Atlanta had the first citywide system and it quickly ran out of electricity.  The small, initial power plants were near upscale Victorian neighborhoods east of downtown.

The nouveaux riche objected to the coal smoke, so the forerunner of the Georgia Power Company began constructing dams and hydroelectric plants on rivers in mountainous North Georgia.  The first one, in 1904, was at Morgan Falls on the Chattahoochee River in Roswell, now part of Metro Atlanta. It had a relatively small reservoir, but caused that section of the river valley to become wetlands.  The construction of these dams gave Atlanta, what was then considered to be the most technically advanced, cost efficient trolley and street lighting system in the nation.

Then in 1926, North Georgia experienced a severe drought.  Georgia Power Company was forced to create the first interstate electrical grid in the United States in order to purchase power from neighboring states that relied on coal-fired electric plants.

The management of the Georgia Power Company was embarrassed and so began planning a network of coal-fired plants.  They built Plant Atkinson on the Chattahoochee River near the Atlanta-Smyrna Highway and the site of the Creek town, Standing Peachtree.  Until that time, as can be seen in the photo above, the Chattahoochee River Valley had a pristine, natural environment, worthy of a national park.

Once Plant Atkinson was built in 1930, dirty industries began to cluster along the river near it.  The City of Atlanta built a water intake and treatment plant upstream from the power plant and a sewage dump station downstream.  With no environmental laws in effect, the municipal and industrial facilities dumped their waste directly into the river.  The same land use changes occurred when a coal-fired plant was built in Columbus, GA.

The Tennessee Valley Authority was the Roosevelt Administration’s largest experiment in socialism and it was a grand success.  Initially, the TVA was not just a power producer, but also a regional planning, road construction, cultural development and healthcare agency.  During the Depression,  federally funded nurses made house calls in the valley.  They even delivered babies and fixed broken bones.

When the TVA first moved into Knoxville, over a third of the people in the Upper Tennessee River Valley had malaria.  Even in the late 1970s, the TVA maintained a large staff of regional and city planners, who assisted communities in Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina.

After World War II, politicians in other Southern states saw how the TVA quickly changed Eastern Tennessee and wanted on the band wagon.  However, the US Army Corps of Engineers was given responsibility for building a network of hydroelectric dams and riverine transportation systems.  The conservative Southern politicos did not want the feds to have more regional authorities.

The Corps of Engineers initially proposed to build a chain of dams on the Chattahoochee River from the mountains to the sea.  The Nacoochee Valley, with all its incredible historic resources and natural beauty, was to become a lake.  Fortunately, the success of the movie, “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain” in 1951 brought the attention of the valley to the nation, so politicos were shamed into dropping plans for a dam there.  However, construction quickly began on Lake Lanier, whose northern end was at the foot of the mountains.

When completed in 1956, Lake Lanier was the largest man-made reservoir in the world.  Oddly enough, Atlanta was forbidden from drawing water from it, so the Morgan Falls Dam was rebuilt much higher to allow for an Atlanta water intake.  Gainesville had only 16,000 residents when the dam was built, but soon was exploding in population and legally drawing water from the lake.  Gainesville now has its own metropolitan area, which is really an extension of Atlanta Metro.

The Corps of Engineers then embarked on a plan to convert the southern half of the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola River System into a highly manipulated riverine transportation system.   Politicians and economic development leaders in Alabama, Florida and Georgia believed the Corps’ projections of a flood of barge traffic on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee River that would turn Apalachicola, Florida into an important seaport and the Columbus-Phenix City Area into a major metropolis.

Economic justifications for the three large dams on the Lower Chattahoochee were based on the assumed impact of freight barge traffic.   Because of the flat terrain, vast tracts of very fertile bottom land were bought by the US Government and covered with water.  For unknown reasons, the Corps of Engineers never entered the cost of lost agricultural production into their cost-benefit formulas.

It was also necessary to build the dams much larger than necessary for power generation in order to make the water deep enough for barge traffic.  The larger surface areas of the lakes then magnified the amount water lost each year to evaporation.

The Apalachicola River was dredged all the way to Georgia.  The dams and locks were built.  Then there was nothing . . . nada.  No one ever considered what demand there might be for any items that might be carried in bulk up the river.  The region was already served by trunk petroleum lines.  The railroads were closing down spurs due to lack of business.  By 2006,  the Apalachicola Bay oysters had suddenly become important to Florida officials again.

It was necessary to build a mile long earthen dam on the flat SW Georgia landscape in order to create the Jim Woodruff Dam and Locks.

It was necessary to build a mile long earthen dam on the flat SW Georgia landscape in order to create the Jim Woodruff Dam and Locks.

Try and find a satellite map of the Chattahoochee River with a barge in it.  The damage was done and almost irreversable.  By the 1980s, the ancient ecology of the river had been destroyed.  It was this complex regional ecology that made possible the health of shellfish on the Gulf Coast.

Explosive growth and Ill-conceived land use planning in Metro Atlanta

When Lake Lanier was being built, Metro Atlanta’s population was about 726,000.  It is now about 6 million.  There are over another million people in Georgia, who are dependent on the Chattahoochee River for their public water systems.  Most of that water goes back into the river as sewage, but the river is reaching its maximum point for being a water source.  The combined Atlanta and Gainesville Metropolitan Areas completely wrap around Lake Lanier.  Metro Atlanta extends to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains and stretches southward about 125 miles.

Yes, Georgia is a very different place than what Corps of Engineers planners studied in the late 1940s, yet 70 year old engineering studies and legal agreements for Lake Lanier have been used as the basis for court proceedings during the past ten years of legal arguments fought between Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Journalists covering these legal jousts rarely mention that the portion of Georgia’s population, which is dependent on the Chattahoochee River for water, vastly exceeds the combined population of the State of Alabama and the entire Florida Panhandle.

Throughout the 1940s to the early 1970s, a primary function of Atlanta Regional Planning Commission was to force the expansion of predominantly black neighborhoods in a southwesterly direction.

While the City of Atlanta was still under the complete control of a nouveaux riche, white elite, it billed itself as “the city too busy to hate.”    There was another story beneath this façade.  Atlanta enthusiastically adopted city planning because it provided a legal means to dodge anti-segregation rulings by the US Supreme Court.  Thinking that its “Colored” citizens would mainly hold menial jobs, industrial and warehouse developments were steered to the southwest toward the Chattahoochee River, while the MARTA rapid transit system was initially designed to bring white executives from Buckhead to Downtowns and “Colored” maids from immediately south and west of Downtown Atlanta to Buckhead.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a vast territory along the Chattahoochee River Floodplain in Southwest Metro Atlanta was rezoned from agriculture to industrial-warehouse usage. No thoughts whatsoever were given to the potential impact downstream of such a vast area being converted from a semi-natural state to hard paving and building roofs.

There were no national environmental standards or flood hazard area construction laws. All stormwater went straight into streams or storm sewers then into the Chattahoochee River.  Stormwater flowing over paving often contained high levels of petrochemical toxins.  Worse still was the water flowing over the grounds of chemical and electronic plants.

In the early 1960s, Texas developer Trammel Crow, proposed to build a spin-off of Six Flags Over Texas and his Great Southwest Industrial Park in Dallas, along the Chattahoochee River near Interstate 20 in Metro Atlanta.   An astonishing 6,234 acres were to be converted from flood plain agricultural usage to industry, warehouses, an amusement park and a business executive oriented airport.

Atlanta’s leadership jumped all over themselves to make the investment from Texas possible.  The land was re-zoned in advance without review of site plans.  No retention of storm water was required.  Crow was allowed to pile up to 25 feet of red Georgia clay over the flood prone landscape to make it developable.  As the project’s construction progressed, communities all the way down the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola River Basin began to feel the impact.  Flash floods became more frequent as Metro Atlanta’s natural capacity to absorb rain water was flushed downstream.

Of course, there was no thought to historic preservation concerns.  In 1939, archaeologist Robert Wauchope, discovered one of the densest concentrations of Native American towns sites in North America along the Chattahoochee River in the very same area in which massive commercial developments were proposed.  His book was not published until 1966, but at least some archaeologists were aware of some of these sites.  Six Flags Over Georgia was built on a Creek town site, named Chattahoochee, with four mounds.  Earth grading workers carried Native American bones home as souvenirs.  All but one of the other village sites were covered with a deep layer of red clay between 1968 and 1970.

Only the Buzzard Island Archaeological Site remains because of being in the center of the river, no profit can be made by developing it into a warehouse.

This is a view today of the level pasture seen on the left of the photo at the top of the article.

This is a view today of the level pasture seen on the left of the photo at the top of the article. The 2,200 year old Sweet Potato Mound was located in that clump of trees in the back of the photo.


And now you know.




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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Great article for Earth Day, Richard! Thank you.

  2. Very clever my dear! You figured it out that it was Earth Day and it was time for Native Americans to stand up for Mother Earth!


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