Fight for the Chattahoochee River

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


By David Hanson // Photos by Michael Hanson and David Hanson

“That’s it,” Gary Gaines says, one hand wrapped around a cold Southpaw, the other pointing across the clear, riffled Chattahoochee River to a concrete pump station the size of a couple stacked port-a-potties. “The start of the Water Wars.”

It’s the first of 30 days that my brother Michael and I will spend paddling the Chattahoochee from its source in north Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico. Earlier, Gaines had advised us to avoid the river’s uppermost reaches. The owners of a fly-fishing shop were liable to have us arrested if we tried to float through their private section of river, and below that lives a man who takes pride in pointing his shotgun at canoeists paddling on his river. That’s right, his river. An 1863 Georgia state law assigns ownership of non-navigable waterways to property holders, so that stretch of the Chattahoochee legally belongs to him. It was a fitting beginning to our journey, the purpose of which was to explore the question of who owns water by paddling down the gut of one of the nation’s most complex and disputed waterways.

Gaines lives in a log cabin at a bend in the river near Clarkesville, Georgia. I spent three rainy days there during my first source-to-sea trip on the Chattahoochee, in 2009. In early September of that year, historic rains raised the river to hundred-year flood levels. I’d watched the clear mountain stream rise seven reddish-brown feet in 10 hours, like some gothic Southern novel scene coming to life through the rain-streaked windows of Gaines’s empty cabin. I passed the time studying the curled-edge William Nealy cartoon maps of the upper Chattahoochee’s four sections and old black-and-white photos of Gaines and his river rat buddies. And I got to know Gaines. He’s the one who told me about the Water Wars.

Now I’m back at the cabin in spring of 2013. Our first day on the river has humbled Michael and me. We put on the river below the threats of arrest and buckshot, only to flip in Smith Island Rapid. We lost a tripod and a camera on the first day of a month-long documentary film trip.

After the long day, Gary waits for us at his cabin. We drag our wet gear and bodies up the bank as he smiles the smile of a man who’s swam a few rapids. “Invigorating, isn’t it?” he says, handing each of us a Southpaw.

Michael and I were raised in Atlanta, on Chattahoochee River water. It tasted fine. We used it to water the lawn, run the dishwasher, wash clothes. Once a year or so we’d spend an afternoon picnicking along the riverbank. Mainly we ignored the river. Most of Atlanta does, unless the Hooch, as we call it, is contaminated with E. coli after heavy rains have overwhelmed the sewage system, or is drying up during drought.

But the Hooch has been at the heart of a decades-old legal battle that is slowly gaining national attention. The Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint (ACF) rivers flow through three states, each of which has a growing thirst for freshwater. Georgia, Florida and Alabama need water for the reasons we all do: industry, power, development, growing populations, agriculture, a healthy ecosystem, and recreation.

The controversy over water didn’t spark my 2009 source-to-sea paddle. I was just curious and looking for an adventure deep into Southern culture, so I borrowed a canoe and asked my dad to drop me off at Gaines’s cabin. It rained for three days, and I rode the historic flood wave 542 miles to Apalachicola Bay. I lived in the strange seam between wild river and manicured suburbs, listening to the disorienting overlay of moving water, muffled traffic, and coyotes howling at the moon. I was invited to sleep in strangers’ backyard trailers, slurp Jell-O shots at lakeside barbecues, find the Lord in evangelical churches, pull catfish off bush hooks, hunt wild hog at midnight, and rake oysters at dawn.

Michael is three years younger, to the day. People say we’re twin-ish. We played shortstop and second base together in college, and now we share a house in Seattle. Both of us are storytellers, too—he a photographer and I a writer. In 2010, we landed a small book deal to document America’s urban farm movement. We bought a short school bus powered by veggie grease, and drove cross-country for two months.

I’d begun to miss those times on the bus. Plus, the river was calling me home. There’s an ease of moving with a river that seems always to pull you back, though ultimately the water crisis brought me back to Georgia, and swept my brother along. The Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, and Flint rivers hold a powerful story about modern water dilemmas, and the characters best suited to tell it are not the politicians and lawyers pulling the strings from the state capitals. They are the people who live on the rivers.

The Hooch is also our native river, and I knew that if we moved at the river’s pace, the people who know the watershed best would share their stories. We could make an honest film about adventure, culture, and a complex battle over water that is a harbinger for future global struggles over our most essential resource.

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