Photo and story by David Hanson
The ACF Basin
Georgia, Alabama, Florida // #1 on the Most Endangered Rivers List
We called it "The Hooch," a Southern euphemism both endearing and with a wink at backwoods vice. Back then, in the '80s and '90s, the Chattahoochee River through Atlanta had a bit of that character – a pretty thing to drive over but too polluted to spend much time in. These days, it's not pollution threatening the Chattahoochee watershed. It's overuse.
The ACF Basin is the 'Hooch (pictured above), the Flint, and the Apalachicola River. A series of droughts in the aughts sent the watershed's political siblings – Georgia, Florida and Alabama—into a tailspin of legal and political battles over where to allocate the rivers' dwindling flow.
This year, the ACF tops the list of Most Endangered Rivers published by the advocacy group American Rivers. It's in good company (last year the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon was number one), and the time I've spent there serves as a vivid reminder that 'most endangered' status doesn't mean a river is too dirty or dead to enjoy. In fact, this year's list is full of great rivers to experience in kayaks and canoes, and paddling them provides a gut-level understanding of why they're worth protecting.
I've paddled the length of the ACF twice, in 2009 and again to produce the documentary film "Who Owns Water" in 2013. There's a lot in the basin for a paddler to love. The Chattahoochee boasts the nation's southernmost trout-bearing stream. Atlanta's National Recreation Area stretch is one of the region's best suburban Class II canoe runs. The city of Columbus recently removed three dams, uncovering a long-dormant whitewater section. One of the nation's longest free-flowing rivers, the Flint has the cliff-lined, pristine Class II Sprewell Bluffs and legendary shoal bass. Its southerly half, with tributaries of aquifer-fed blue holes, hosts the highest density of amphibian and reptile species north of Mexico. Finally, the Apalachicola flows unfettered for 107 miles of black water and white sandbars surrounded by an Amazon-like expanse of forest service land.
But it's a working man's river system with lots of straws: Atlanta and its growing exurbs, heavily irrigated agriculture, a nuclear plant, and paper and power industries. At the mouth, Apalachicola Bay oysters (and fishermen and women who harvest them) depend on adequate ACF freshwater. The basin's hope lies with the research and collaboration of the ACF Stakeholders, an organization of industry reps, environmentalists, recreationalists and local politicians who've been meeting for years to hash out a realistic, shared water use policy. I like to think that it's nothing science and a little honest southern hospitality can't figure out.
Central Montana // #4 on the Most Endangered Rivers List
What to paddle: It's all or nothing on the Smith. Private property, canyon walls, and limited permits mean floating the Smith's mellow, meandering 61 miles requires planning. But if you get in there, you have the heart of Montana and its black bears, pictographs and native rainbows and browns all to yourself.
How it's threatened: Tintina Resources Corporation wants to build a copper mine in the Smith drainage, posing a major acid contamination threat. The State of Montana is forcing Tintina to prove beyond any doubt that their operation won't pose a threat to the Smith and its legendary trout fisheries.
Season: April – early July
Seattle, Washington // #5 on the Most Endangered Rivers List
What to paddle: Upstream, Cascade melt-water feeds the Class III-IV Green River Gorge section, a classic Seattle backyard run with the Paradise play-hole at the take-out. Families, canoes and beginner kayakers hit the Class II "Yo-Yo" section beginning at Flaming Geyser State Park.
How it's threatened: Pollution, floodplain development and restrictive, outdated dams threaten salmon and steelhead runs on the Duwamish-Green River. The Corps of Engineers can mitigate some threat by constructing downstream access for young salmon and steelhead.
Season: Year-round, occasionally depending on dam releases.
Russell Fork River
Kentucky and Tennessee // #7 on the Most Endangered Rivers List
What to paddle: An old-school classic set in one the east coast's deepest canyons, the four-mile Gorge section – scenic, sieved Class V boulder gardens – has long been a benchmark for Southeast whitewater boaters. Above and below the Gorge are shorter, Class II-III runs.
How it's threatened: The relatively remote, pristine Russell Fork is threatened by Big Coal. Paramont Coal Co. seeks an EPA permit for a mountain-top removal pine that would fill streams and valleys in the Russell Fork headwaters with potentially toxic waste.
Season: Winter/spring or following big rains
Mississippi and Alabama // #10 on the Most Endangered Rivers List
What to paddle: The Lower 48's longest free-flowing river (a bittersweet fact since it's only 80 miles) weaves slowly through black cypress swamps, bottomland forests and wetlands teeming with fish and wildlife. The 10-mile Pascagoula River Blueway connects points of interest in Moss Point, Miss., a marshy urban-estuary where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico.
How it's threatened: Local counties are seeking permits to dam Pascagoula tributaries and drastically alter natural river flow.
A version of this story will appear in the Summer 2016 edition of the magazine.