The Upper Coosa River Basin occupies three different physiographic provinces including 1. Blue Ridge, the core of the ancient Southern Appalachians 2.Ridge and Valley, the largest province with primarily limestone geology 3. Piedmont, gently rolling hills south and east of the Blue Ridge. The Coosa River system begins as tiny springs in the Cohutta Mountains of Northwest Georgia (headwaters of the Oostanaula River) and in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Central Georgia (headwaters of the Coosawattee and Etowah rivers).
The Oostanaula arm of the Coosa River basin drains communities like Dalton, Ellijay and Calhoun. It is formed by the confluence of the ConasaugaRiver which begins in the Cohutta Mountains along the Georgia-Tennessee border and the Coosawattee River with headwater streams the Ellijay and Cartecay rivers beginning on the flanks of the Blue Ridge Mountains in central North Georgia.
The Conasauga is 47 miles long, and ranks fourth nationally for the number of federally threatened and endangered species in a single watershed.
The Coosawattee flows about 25 miles from the town of Ellijay to Calhoun. It is dammed to form Carters Lake just downstream of Ellijay. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Carters Dam is the tallest earthen-fill dam in North America and creates a 400-foot deep reservoir that is 2nd deepest in the eastern United States. A second, re-regulation dam is located downstream of this dam. Two crayfish and a fish are endemic to the Coosawattee River system.
From the meeting of the Conasauga and Coosawattee, the Oostanaula flows 47 miles to Rome where it meets the Etowah to form the Coosa.
The Oostanaula contains the last remaining population of a critically imperiled snail, the interrupted rocksnail.
The Etowah River arm of the Coosa system drains a large swath of North Georgia including Atlanta’s northern suburbs in Forsyth, Cherokee, Fulton, Cobb and Bartow counties. It begins as a tiny spring at Hightower Gap along the Appalachian Trail, about 15 miles northwest of Dahlonega and then flows 160 miles to Rome where it meets the Oostanaula forming the Coosa River. It drains a total of 1,858 square miles. At least four species of fish, a crayfish and an aquatic insect are endemic to the Etowah system. Major Tributaries include Amicalola Creek, Long Swamp Creek, Shoal Creek, Little River, Pumpkinvine Creek, and Euharlee Creek. Allatoona Dam near Cartersville, completed in 1950, blocks the river’s path and forms Lake Allatoona.
Formed by the confluence of the Etowah and the Oostanaula River in Rome, the Coosa flows 600 miles to the Mobile River and Mobile Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. From Rome, the Coosa winds to Weiss Dam near Centre, Alabama. Below Weiss Dam, it merges with the Tallapoosa, forming the Alabama River.
Notably, the Coosa River is home to one of the few populations of naturally-reproducing striped bass in the country. Each spring, thousands of striped bass journey into the Coosa and Oostanaula rivers in Rome from Weiss Lake to spawn.
Major tributaries of the Coosa between Rome and Weiss Dam include Big Cedar Creek, Little River, and Chattooga River.
The upper Coosa River basin has a higher percentage of endemic species (critters found nowhere else on earth) than any other basin in North America.
Draining more than 5,000 square miles of land, the Upper Coosa River Basin ranges from Southeastern Tennessee and North Central Georgia to Weiss Dam in Northeast Alabama and holds an incredible array of aquatic species.
No other river basin in North America has a higher percentage of endemic species than the Upper Coosa River Basin. Thirty (30) different species of fishes, mussels, snails and crayfishes call the waters of the Coosa—and no where else—home. Researchers call the Upper Coosa Basin a “globally significant biological treasure.”
Coosa River Fishes
The Upper Coosa River is the historic home to 100 different fish species, including 12 endemic species. For a river basin in a temperate climate, the Coosa River basin has the greatest number of endemic fish species in the world. This includes six species listed as federally endangered or threatened. Due to the introduction of exotic species, currently, the basin is home to 114 different species. Federally threatened and endangered fish species in the basin include the blue shiner, Cherokee darter, goldline darter, Etowah darter, amber darter, and Conasauga log perch. State protected fish species include the bluestripe shiner, holiday darter, coldwater darter, and trispot darter.
The coosa’s small minnows and darters represent over half of the basin’s 114 fish species and all of the endemic and federally listed species. What they lack in size, they make up for in showmanship. Many darters are exceedingly colorful, sporting electric blues, emerald greens and fiery reds.They generally feed on aquatic insects, though larger species feed on smaller fish and some species eat only plant material.These fish depend upon flowing, silt-free habitat and high water quality.
One species of note is the lake sturgeon. Once common in the Coosa River basin, the species is now the object of a Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) restocking campaign. This unique fish with a shark-like tail, sucker-like mouth and catfish-like barbels under its long snout was driven from the Coosa River largely due to overharvesting. DNR began stocking young sturgeon in the Coosa in 2002, and now the larger sturgeons are regularly reported from the river.
Coosa River Mussels and Snails
The basin is also known for its tremendous diversity of mussels and snails. The basin is the historic home to 43 mussel species and 32 species of snails. Sadly, 15 species of mussels and eight species of snails have been lost from the Upper Coosa Basin. In the Upper and Lower Coosa River Basins together, a total of 37 snails and mussels have been lost. Researchers say that this loss is considered the largest single extinction event in U.S. history. Of the mussels and snails remaining in the Upper Coosa River Basin, seven mussels are listed as federally threatened or endangered, including the finelinedpocketbook, Alabama moccasinshell, Coosa moccasinshell, southern clubshell, southern pigtoe, rayed kidneyshell and Georgia pigtoe. Additonally, the interruptedrocksnail is also listed as federally endangered.
Freshwater snails and mussels are the custodians of our rivers. Mussels filter water, keeping it clear and clean while snails contribute to clean water by eating algae off of rocks, wood, and other surfaces. Both serve as important food sources for other river critters, including fish and mammals.
Both mussels and snails are sensitive to changes in river ecology, preferring stable, silt-free river bottoms and flowing water. The basin’s numerous dams have greatly reduced the abundance of both species.
Fish play an important role in the reproductive cycle of mussels, serving as hosts for young mussels called “glochidia.” Glochidia live on fish gills and fins until they are large enough to drop to the river bottom and grow into adult mussels. Some mussel species depend upon specific species of fish as their host, thus declines in fish populations have led to declines in mussel populations throughout the upper Coosa River basin.
The Coosa–the economic engine of Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama
About 1 million people live within the Upper Coosa River Basin—most of which depend upon the Coosa and its tributaries as their drinking water source. This area includes all, or portions, of the following counties Bartow, Cobb, Chattooga, Cherokee, Dawson, Floyd, Forsyth, Gilmer, Gordon, Lumpkin, Murray, Paulding, Pickens, Polk, Walker and Whitfield counties in Georgia and Cherokee County in Alabama.
Communities within the basin withdraw about 100 million gallons a day (MGD) from surface and groundwater sources. The largest single municipal user in the Coosa River Basin is Whitfield County/Dalton which withdraws more than 20 MGD from the Conasauga and its tributaries.
In addition to serving as the drinking water source and wastewater assimilator for hundreds of thousands of residents of Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama, the waterways of the Coosa River Basin also drive local economies.
In Dalton and Whitfield County, the Coosa River basin is home to the Carpet Capital of the World. Some 80 percent of the nation’s carpet is produced in Whitfield, Gordon, Catoosa, Murray and Bartow counties, and the textile industry in northwest Georgia employs about 30,000 people.
The primary water source for this industry is the Conasauga River.
Water is also critical to north Georgia’s poultry industry where countless growers raise broilers at farms dotting the landscape and where multiple facilities use large amounts of water to process the state’s top farm commodity. Statewide, the poultry industry is a $13.5 billion industry with an annual payroll estimated at $3.8 billion. Each year, Georgia’s poultry industry produces 24.7 million pounds of chicken meat and 8.2 million eggs.
The water-intensive paper products industry is also fed by the Coosa. International Paper on the Coosa River is among Floyd County’s largest employers, with more than 400 workers.
The Coosa River basin is home to two large fossil fuel, power-generating facilities—Georgia Power’s Plant Bowen located on the Etowah River in Bartow County and Plant Hammond located on the Coosa River in Floyd County. Plant Bowen is among the nation’s largest coal-fired power plants, producing about 20 percent of the electricity sold by Georgia Power Co. and employing some 400 people. Plant Bowen also enfuses some $14 million into Bartow County tax coffers. In addition to these facilities, the basin’s large dams on the Etowah, Coosawattee and Coosa are responsible for generating large amounts of electricity used in local homes, businesses and industrial facilities.
Since 1993, Budweiser has brewed its products using Etowah River water at its 900,000 square-foot facility in Bartow County. Coosa River water is also used in the manufacture of tires, plastics, car parts and food products while also supporting thousands of small and large farms. North Georgia’s farm gate exceeds $2 billion.
Tourism and recreation round out the economic importance of the upper Coosa River basin. A study of Lake Allatoona, one the Corps of Engineers most visited projects in the country, showed that the lake had a yearly $93 million impact on local economies.
Weiss Lake is known as the Crappie Capital of the World for its tremendous crappie fishery, and the economy of Cherokee County is highly dependent upon the lake. Each year, lake visitors spend about $145 million locally, and the lake generates about 4,100 jobs in the region worth $36 million in wages, according to studies conducted during the 1990s.
Development of the Etowah River Water Trail has led to that river supporting three commercial outfitters. Commercial boating outfitters also operate on the Cartecay River near Ellijay, and numerous commercial fishing guides, bait shops, campgrounds and other businesses serving river users depend on the waters of the upper Coosa River for their continued success.