Fight for the Chattahoochee River, Page 4

A river’s-eye view of the South’s surprising water crisis

chatt hanson10
The Lower Flint River flows atop a Swiss-cheese geology of porous limestone filled with layers of ancient aquifers. The murky sapphire water of the Floridian aquifer, which provides water to the state’s panhandle, emerges from the lowland forest throughout the Lower Flint. When I spotted a stream of blue water dissolving into the Flint’s brown body, I turned the canoe and paddled up the narrow tributary, through swarms of mosquitos and beneath vines hanging like stiff clotheslines. When the trickle was too narrow to float my canoe, I left it and walked an ATV road to Miller Spring, a “blue hole” the size of an Olympic swimming pool.

Again, I’ve entered a new world, this one defined by an underwater labyrinth of aquifers. Only occasionally, as at Miller Spring, does a surface-water tributary enter the Flint. The majority of the water now moves below ground. Little is known about the hydrology of this area, but researchers at the nearby Jones Ecological Research Center are tracing the flows, trying to understand the connections between surface water and aquifer recharge. The hard science can hopefully inform EPA administrators as to when to declare drought in the basin. The farmers want to know, too. This is farm country, and farmers, better than any others in the watershed, know the importance of water.
Most everyone in Mitchell County knows everyone else. When I ask a man near the river if he knows any farmers I might talk to about water use he tells me that as a matter of fact, a group of local farmers is meeting with the Georgia EPA the next day at the Stripling Irrigation Research Park. Then he offers to drive me there.

At the meeting, more than two-dozen farmers of all ages sit in a conference room. After a lunch of cold cut sandwiches, Gail Cowie of the Georgia EPA discusses a proposed aquifer recharge project. Cowie outlined a complex system of pipes and wells designed to divert river water into the aquifers during periods of high flow. During drought, water would be pumped out of these aquifer reservoirs for irrigation and to maintain healthy flows for sensitive aquatic species. The plan would alleviate the issue of evaporation from surface reservoirs, but would be extremely costly. There’s also a chance that minerals in the sub-surface aquifers could contaminate the stored river water.
The farmers are polite, though clearly unimpressed. A young farmer asks haltingly if the plan is yet another expensive way to engineer more water out of thin air. A classic big city-small town dynamic takes shape in the room. The farmers work the land everyday. They read weather patterns and spend sleepless nights worrying about water. Many have begun using more efficient center-pivot irrigation systems. A couple farms in the Lower Flint are participating in a project to measure soil moisture with high-tech sensors to more accurately gauge irrigation timing and duration, potentially saving millions of gallons of water. They seem skeptical of the big-city administrator using the majority of the water in the system.

An older farmer in the back of the room voices what many seem to be thinking. “We’re talking a lot about changing practices here, but are we talking about changing policies up in Atlanta, too?”

The Apalachicola River immediately feels primitive. Within a mile from the Jim Woodruff Dam, the last impoundment in the ACF Basin, we spy a nine-foot gator sunning itself on a sandy bank. As we glide past, Michael and I now back in the same canoe, the old dinosaur thrashes violently into the flow. The brown surface swallows her and quickly smoothes again to a deceptively innocent reflection of blue sky and fluffy clouds.

People down here seem a little more wild too. At Ocheesee Landing, a handful of homemade houseboats float in a giant eddy, thick ropes anchoring them to nearby oaks. John and Patricia Wallace recognize me from my first float down in 2009, when I’d tied up to their floating porch and shared a few beers. Now Patricia fries catfish on the porch. She hands the chunks to us on a bed of grease-darkened newspaper. She and John hunt deer and hog and catch fish, making occasional runs to the grocery store for beer, cornmeal, oil, water, and the odd vegetable. They don’t plan on leaving Ocheesee. No one bothers them there.

The river’s up right now. Weekly thunderstorms throughout the watershed have ensured regular dam releases, so the Apalachicola slides silently into the cypress and tupelo swamps bordering its main channel. The whole place feels weighted down beneath the heavy accumulation of so much water. Too soon we reach the marshes, the forests spreading away from the river like a curtain drawn back from a stage. The river is meeting the ocean and everything slows.

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