The ecology and economy of the Coosa River Basin and public health in the basin is threatened by numerous pollution problems. These include dams, sedimentation, point-source releases, non-point source runoff, stormwater runoff, air pollution, past industrial and land use practices, introduced or exotic species and water transfers outside the basin. Most of these threats are associated with land-use practices and a growing human population in the basin. During the next 25 years, the population of the Upper Coosa River Basin is expected to more than double, growing to more than two million people. Thus, human population growth and the accompanying land development is the biggest threat to the Coosa River system.
While creating recreational opportunities, water storage, flood control and hydro-power, dams are among the most damaging habitat alterations to rivers and creeks. There are three major dams in the Upper Coosa River Basin (Weiss Dam on the Coosa, Allatoona Dam on the Etowah and Carters Dam & Re-regulation Dam on the Coosawattee). In addition, there are numerous smaller dams, ranging in size from small dams creating farm ponds to the historic spillway on the Etowah in the City of Cartersville.
The vast majority of stream animals cannot adapt to impounded waters. Their ability to spawn, find food and shelter, and sometimes simply breath is affected by impounded waters. Major downstream impacts of dams include temperature changes (affecting spawning timing), decreased dissolved oxygen levels (affecting respiratory functions) and wildly fluctuating water levels during electricity generation (scouring the channel, causing bank erosion and disrupting spawning). Additionally, migratory pathways for many fishes are blocked by impoundments.
As the population of the basin grows, demands for reliable drinking water supplies are forcing planners to consider construction of dams for water supply purposes. While no major dam projects are currently proposed for the mainstems of the Coosa and its major tributaries, smaller tributaries are being targeted for both on-stream and off-stream water supply reservoir construction.
The most common impact to stream organisms is excess sediments washing into streams, eliminating habitat for many species. A form of “non-point source pollution,” sedimentation happens when rain washes off disturbed land surfaces creating erosion that carries dirt into our streams and rivers. It is currently considered the number one pollutant of our streams, rivers and lakes. Agricultural fields, deforested land, and construction sites are common sources of sedimentation in the basin. Sedimentation and the resulting increased turbidity cause bottom habitats to be covered with silt which reduces spawning sites, eliminates shelters and habitat, smothers gill-breathing organisms and prevents fish from finding food. In human terms, it’s the equivalent of trying to find a restaurant in a crowded city in which outdoor signs and advertising were prohibited.
Sedimentation also impacts humans by increasing the costs of treating drinking water, reducing recreational enjoyment of our waterways and reducing property values.
In the Coosa River Basin, the most common sign of this form of pollution are streams and rivers running the color of red Georgia clay. Though forestry and agricultural land use practices have historically contributed to sedimentation of the basin’s streams, land development in fast-growing counties such as Forsyth, Cherokee, Paulding, Bartow, Gordon and Whitfield counties is currently the most common source of sediment in our waterways.
Violations of the Clean Water Act such as the encroachment on stream buffers and the failure to use and maintain best management practices at construction sites contribute greatly to sedimentation problems. The development practice of clearing large land areas at one time, commonly referred to as “mass grading,” is another major contributor to sedimentation.
Most point source problems have been corrected since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. A point-source release is pollution that comes from the end of a pipe emptying directly into a waterway such as from a municipal or industrial wastewater treatment facility.
Some remaining point-source problems can be associated with treatment plants that do not properly remove chlorines or other chemicals, nutrients and bacteria from the wastewater discharge. Chlorine can be one of the most lethal chemicals to stream animals when released in even low concentrations. CRBI monitors more than 50 point-source discharges in the Basin. Many of these discharges routinely exceed pollutant levels set forth in permits issued by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division and Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management. The Clean Water Act allows citizens and citizen-based organizations such as CRBI to taken legal action to ensure compliance with state-issued permits and the Clean Water Act.
Population increases will place greater demand on the basin’s wastewater treatment facilities. Planners say that the basin’s wastewater treatment demands will far surpass existing treatment capacity within the next 25 years. New facilities will need to be built and existing facilities will need to be expanded and upgraded. A failure on the part of local governments and industry to invest in sewer infrastructure and facilities that treat wastewater to the highest possible levels remains a serious threat to water quality in the basin.
Non-point Source Releases
In addition to sediment, various chemical compounds such as fertilizers, pesticides and heavy metals can wash directly into streams and act as a pollutant. These pollutants are carried off the land surface and to streams during rain events. Chemicals used for industrial or mining processes (chlorine and heavy metals), runoff from paved surfaces (nickel, zinc and petroleum derivatives), agricultural lands (nitrates, phosphorus, ammonia and pesticides) and litter (soda cans, bottles and other trash) are all considered non-point source polluters. Other non-point sources can come from atmospheric deposition (acid rain) and localized chemical spills at highways and railroads. These various sources contribute to poor water quality in many different ways. For instance, ammonia in fertilizers and other waste products can create nutrient-rich conditions causing algae blooms which can deplete oxygen levels in water and suffocate aquatic species.
In recent years, Carters Lake on the Coosawattee River has experienced problems with algae blooms and nutrient loading. This pollution—tracked primarily to agricultural runoff from chicken farms–has impacted downstream communities that withdraw water from the Oostanaula River, increasing the cost and difficulty of treating municipal water supplies.
Varied and numerous, non-point sources of pollution are difficult to identify. Non-point sources generally increase as land is cleared and developed for residential, commercial and industrial purposes. For this reason, as more land is developed within the fast-growing Coosa basin, controlling non-point source pollution will be an increasingly important task.
Closely associated with non-point source pollution, stormwater runoff includes the non-point sources listed above, but includes the rapid run-off of rainwater seen in heavily urbanized areas where natural forests and fields (pervious surfaces) have been replaced by roads, parking lots and buildings. These impervious surfaces prevent rainwater from soaking into the ground. Instead, rainwater rushes quickly to streams, creating a large, rapid pulse of water that can scour steam channels so severely that only very large rocks and hard-packed surfaces remain. Channel scouring eliminates habitat for all types of stream animals and contributes greatly to poor water quality. This flush of rainwater can also elevate water temperatures to levels that make streams uninhabitable for some aquatic species such as temperature-sensitive trout species.
Aside from ruining streams and our enjoyment of them, stormwater runoff impacts humans be increasing the likelihood of flash floods and property damage. As with other forms of non-point source pollution, the problem of stormwater runoff increases in developed landscapes. To prevent this form of pollution, innovative land development practices that reduce impervious surfaces and protect stream buffers must be implemented.
Past Industrial/Land Use Practices
The Coosa River Basin faces an ongoing threat to human health and the ecology due to the past practices of the General Electric Medium Transformer facility located in Rome, Georgia. From 1953 until 1977, General Electric used PCBs in the production of medium transformers at its Redmond Road facility in West Rome. In 1976, the federal government banned PCBs, and their use was discontinued at the GE facility in Rome.
However, during those years, PCBs were released into the environment in several ways. PCBs contaminated GE’s facility through spills during the 24 years in which they were used. Once on the ground, rain and stormwater carried the PCBs to drainage ditches and off GE property into adjoining properties and into local streams and rivers.
Landfills at the GE site containing PCBs and other hazardous waste have also contaminated groundwater.
An unknown number of GE employees used PCBs at their homes as a termite deterrent, dust suppressant and wood treatment. And, an undetermined number of residents used PCB-contaminated sludge from Rome’s wastewater treatment plant as fertilizer for gardens and farms.
Due to the extent of the contamination and the long-lived nature of these chemicals, most fish within the Upper Coosa River Basin remain unhealthy to eat due to the high levels of PCBs found in their tissue.
GE’s PCB clean up in Rome is expected to take decades. Georgia Environmental Protection Division is charged with insuring that the clean up methods chosen by GE protect human health and restore the land and waterways of the basin.
The Coosa River Basin is home to two of Georgia’s top ten air polluters in Temple-Inland’s Container Board Plant on the Coosa near Rome and Georgia Power’s Plant Bowen, a coal-fired steam electric generating plant on the Etowah near Cartersville. These facilities constitute a threat to human health and the environment. Together these facilities released 22,658,331 pounds of pollutants into the air in 2002, including 857 pounds of mercury, a potent neurotoxin that can severely and permanently damage the human nervous system and kidneys. When mercury is released to the air from these facilities, a portion of it deposits in surface waters. Toxic mercury in surface waters enters the food chain when it is converted to methylmercury by bacteria. Methylmercury then concentrates in the flesh of fish and other aquatic organisms, eventually threatening human health.
The most commonly identified at-risk populations for mercury poisoning are fetuses and breast-fed babies, who may be exposed to mercury when their mothers eat mercury-tainted fish, and children, whose central nervous system development may be compromised by ingesting mercury-laden fish directly.
Perhaps the single biggest threat to the long-term health of the Coosa Basin is water transfers out of the basin. When water is withdrawn from one river basin and released in an adjacent river basin, this practice is called “interbasin transfer.” In the Coosa River Basin, a major interbasin transfer occurs on the Etowah River. Each day an about 50 million gallons of water is removed from the Etowah and as much as 25 MGD is never returned. This water is transferred to the Chattahoochee River Basin and serves water users in Metro Atlanta. Water plans show this transfer increasing to up to 150 MGD in the next 30 years.
Interbasin transfers fundamentally and irreversibly alter natural water flows in our rivers and streams. The Etowah-to-Chattahoochee tranfer has the potential to harm endangered, threatened, and sensitive species that depend on specific water flows. Additionally, by reducing the amount of water in the Coosa River Basin, this water transfer can impact our rivers’ ability to assimilate pollutants, and it has the potential to handicap economic development and prosperity throughout the Upper Coosa Basin, particularly in the recreation-dependent economies surrounding Weiss Lake in Alabama.