After our baptism at Smith Island Rapid we don’t cowboy anymore shoals. Our boat, the same old Wenonah camp canoe I’d paddled in 2009, its thwart now rotted out, carries the two of us, all of our camera gear and equipment, for 30 days with barely four inches of freeboard to spare. We are not a stable vessel, so we keep a hard angle against the whitecaps cutting across north Georgia’s Lake Lanier, the root of the water crisis.
The origins of the fight go back to 1950, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a dam in the worn-down Appalachian foothills near Gainesville, Ga. The project was designed to provide power and flood control, but, the feds imagined, it also would become a water resource for Atlanta’s growing population. When the Corps asked Atlanta mayor William Hartsfield to contribute to the project, his response was almost theatrical in its foreshadowing: “Certainly a city which is only one hundred miles below one of the greatest rainfall areas in the nation will never find itself in the position of a city like Los Angeles.”
And that’s the problem. Western river advocates have long battled thirsty, misplaced municipalities like Los Angeles, which has all but drained the Owens River in eastern California, and intensive irrigation that pulls so much water from the Colorado that it no longer reaches its natural mouth at the Sea of Cortez. East Coasters, with their weeklong spring rains, summer thunderstorms, and fall hurricanes have a hard time relating. Theirs is a saturated geography laced with streams, rivers, lakes, and aquifers.
When Hartsfield turned down the Corps, Atlanta had a population of half a million. Now the greater metropolitan area is home to 5.5 million residents, all of whom rely on Lake Lanier and the Hooch, the smallest watershed for any major city in the country. When severe droughts roll on for years, as happened in the late 2000s, Atlanta hordes water in Lake Lanier. The reduced flows affect people and wildlife all the way to the river’s terminus in Apalachicola Bay, 427 river miles below Atlanta, where the river’s freshwater influx creates one of the nation’s most productive (commercially and ecologically) fisheries and marine nurseries.
Other than those few ornery landowners in the non-navigable Hooch headwaters, no one owns the Chattahoochee, Flint, or Apalachicola rivers. And unlike in the West, where water rights are strictly defined, landowners on the ACF are entitled to take a “reasonable amount” of water, leaving the rest to downstream users. The definition of “reasonable” in this context is about as murky as the Hooch after a heavy rain. Though no one can own the water, nearly everyone stakes a claim to it.
After a week together on the Hooch, Michael and I reach Atlanta. In order to trace the entire ACF Basin and collect a complete story, we must paddle both the Chattahoochee and the Flint River, which begins just south of downtown Atlanta, near Hartsfield International Airport. So Michael and I will split up for the next two weeks. He’ll stay on the Hooch, and I’ll paddle a parallel path on the Flint. We’ll reunite roughly 350 miles later, at Lake Seminole on the Florida line.
On a cold, sunny morning in early March, I watch from the Chattahoochee’s muddy bank as Michael lines his loaded canoe down the side of a river-wide concrete weir that collects water for the intake tunnels at the John J. McDonough steam-electric generating plant, a behemoth complex looming like a small city over the river.
Michael will see plenty more of the same as he paddles solo along the Alabama-Georgia border, past cities and farms, coal-fired power plants and a nuclear reactor, all drawing water from the Hooch. He’ll also portage around nine dams that sit astride the river.
The Flint, perhaps because of its course through the rural, small-town agricultural terrain of central and southwest Georgia, has rarely made headlines since the 1970s, when then-Governor Jimmy Carter, a native of nearby Plains, Ga., fought to prevent the damming of the Flint River near Sprewell Bluffs. The plan was squashed and the Flint remains one of only 40 American rivers to flow freely for more than 200 miles. Now the river faces the threat of overuse from Atlanta’s southeasterly suburban sprawl in its headwaters and intensive irrigation for the large peanut, soy, cotton, and corn farms in the Lower Flint basin.
With a barbecue sandwich in one hand, my paddle in the other, and a High Life between my feet, I slide, for the first time, into the slick brown current of the Flint below Griffin, Ga. Both the Chattahoochee and the Flint move over intermittent shoals toward the Fall Line, the geologic divide where the rocky Piedmont plateau finally tapers out into the flat coastal plain. While the Chattahoochee tumbles over the Fall Line in short Class IV froth at Columbus, Ga., the Flint takes a longer path.
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