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Dec. 14, 2019
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Looking after the Chattahoochee River Headwaters

By Pamela A. Keene
 
Just two years after it was founded in Atlanta 25 years ago, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper opened a headwaters office in Gainesville.
 
“The original purpose was to focus on stream restoration, to increase our outreach into the Chattahoochee’s headwaters region, and to engage people from this area,” said Dale Caldwell, director of the office now located on Washington Street in downtown Gainesville. “Many people may not even connect the river with Lake Lanier, but the two are forever mutually connected. And that’s just part of the work we’re doing here in the headwaters.”
 
Today the office focuses on water quality and monitoring issues, program work and community outreach. 
 
So just what is the headwaters area of the Chattahoochee River? “It’s the land around feeder creeks and streams in North Georgia that actually flow into what we know as the Chattahoochee River,” he explains. “The headwaters section of the river flows through Lake Lanier and continues south to Buford Dam. Because it is the beginning of the river, anything that affects the headwaters will also affect the river all the way downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. CRK is dedicated to protecting the tributaries, watershed, Lake Lanier and the river itself.”
 
The Headwaters Office serves the people of North Georgia, from creating events like the Wild and Scenic Film Festival each May, river and lake cleanups, hikes to the river’s headwaters, and rain barrel workshops and school programs. The office is also responsible for water quality testing programs in the headwaters region and on Lake Lanier. 
 
On-the-water learning 
Since 2001, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper has maintained a floating classroom on Lanier, partnering with Elachee Nature Center in Gainesville and more recently, Hall County Parks and Leisure. More than 65,000 students and teachers have boarded the original Chota Princess pontoon boat or her replacement – Chota Princess II – to learn about the river and the lake, the environment, nature and ecology. Hands-on activities associated with Georgia Standards for Excellence help students learn about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at the Lake Lanier Aquatic Learning Center.
 
Activities include water quality testing and identifying freshwater plankton and wildlife to learn how the lake is connected to students’ drinking water in their homes. “They gain insight into how they can protect these precious water resources,” said Hannah Warner, headwaters outreach coordinator. “These experiences give students from elementary through high school the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the water that is so important to our lives – all while having fun.” 
Two years ago, the Riverkeeper built a new boathouse as the new home of the Chota Princess II at River Forks Park. 
 
Additionally, the Riverkeeper helps underserved students participate in floating classroom sessions through grants and scholarships. To date, nearly 9,000 scholarship students and teachers have been able to attend because of this program.
 
The Headwaters’ floating classroom became the model for a second program downriver on West Point Lake. Opened in 2015, it has worked with additional students and teachers to educate them about water issues and the environment.
 
Water-quality testing 
For a number of years staff at the headwaters office have been monitoring water quality in the Chattahoochee River, its streams, creeks and tributaries, many of which flow directly into Lanier. Long-time testing sites include Flat Creek, Balus Creek, Wahoo Creek and Two-Mile Creek. 
 
Since 2010, CRK has monitored algae levels. This program takes place from April through October. “As the source of drinking water for more than five million people, Lake Lanier’s water quality is vital,” Caldwell says. “Lanier, like all lakes, collects and holds nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus that flows into the lake from a number of sources, including agricultural, industrial and wastewater facilities, septic tanks, lawn fertilizers and even storm-water runoff. Higher concentrations of nutrients can drive excessive algae growth, which, in turn, can have devastating effects on fish stocks and drinking-water.”
 
CRK’s nutrient monitoring program has been approved by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, which uses the data to make regulatory decisions. The data has helped the state determine that Lanier is not currently meeting state water quality standards, and as a result, the state was required to develop an action plan in accordance with the nation’s federal Clean Water Act. This plan includes a mandated reduction in phosphorus loading into Lanier from permitted wastewater treatment facilities, as well as developing initiatives to reduce non-point source stormwater runoff. Riverkeeper’s work has also resulted in municipalities investing millions of dollars to improve sewage plants around the lake.
 
Neighborhood Water Watch
Each week more than a dozen volunteers and interns visit more than 30 sites to sample water in the Chattahoochee River, creeks that flow into Lanier and in the lake including several beach sites. Samples from the headwaters region are brought to the Gainesville office where they are tested. The tests measure pollutants including e. coli, conductivity and turbidity. If levels are found to be high, then CRK staff work to track the source of pollution.
 
Siltation, Soil Erosion, Sedimentation and Stormwater Runoff
Soil erosion can also affect water quality in Lanier. From wave action along the shoreline to increased building and development, excess soil flows into the lake reducing water quality and property values for those who live on the lake. 
 
“Sedimentation is one of the biggest threats to the health of our waterways, and laws are in place that require proper measures are taken to reduce the amount of sediment leaving construction sites,” Caldwell said. “Part of the work of the headwaters office is to ensure that construction sites are in compliance, by regularly monitoring and patrolling these developments. CRK’s work in this area has resulted in state enforcement actions, improved construction practices, and buffer protections at sites that would otherwise have a significant negative impact on Lanier.”
 
Georgia’s Erosion and Sedimentation Control Act restricts land disturbance within 25 feet of creeks, rivers, streams and most lakes and ponds. Especially around the lake, Riverkeeper works with the local governments and the Georgia EPD to identify violations and ensure enforcement and restoration along the streams that flow into Lanier.
 
How you can get involved 
“From attending events to volunteering, there are many ways to become involved in the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper,” Warner said. “The headwaters office is an integral part of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper that has members, stakeholders and constituents along the full 435 miles of the river, from its beginnings in north Georgia down to the Apalachicola River.”
 
Members can participate in any of the Riverkeepers events, cleanups or projects. They also receive e-blasts and the bi-annual RiverChat newsletter as well as a decal for their car or boat. “Memberships also support the Riverkeeper’s work to ensure clean water in the community,” Caldwell said, “providing ways to become involved in being good environmental stewards.”
 
Membership starts at $35 for individuals and $50 for a dual membership. Senior and student memberships cost $15. For more info, visit Chattahoochee.org or call at 678-696-8866.

Posted online 7/26/19
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