When you are having house guests, are you overcome with the compulsion to clean each nook and cranny? Do you fret about the peeling paint on the front door? Are you sure to get the flower beds in tip-top shape?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you might understand how I feel about having 400 people paddle the Conasauga and Oostanaula rivers during Paddle Georgia this summer.
For ten years, I served as Riverkeeper for these rivers, trying along with other Coosa River Basin Initiative (CRBI)staff members and lots of dedicated volunteers to protect and restore these rivers. I still work for CRBI trying to tidy up our river home. This is my backyard…my home. my big wet house, and this summer, Paddle Georgia participants are my guests. I take these rivers personally.
As I paddled down them this week, conducting some of our final scouting for the trip, I noted all the peeling paint and unfinished renovations: the far too many places where farmers allow their livestock to access the river; the flotillas of trash pinned against strainers; the ill-planned riverside park in my hometown of Rome with its unsightly industrial bulwark jutting out from the river bank. I’ll be embarrassed by all these.
But, like a homeowner noting to his house guests the latest renovation or the tall shade tree planted a decade ago, I’ll also take great pride in all that is special about our northwest Georgia home: the incredible array of mussels and fish (the upper Coosa is the most biologically unique river system in North America), the beautiful riverside bluffs (they call it the Ridge and Valley region for a reason), the quaint views of the City Clocktower and Floyd County courthouse as you enter Rome via the Oostanaula (there’s not another town in Georgia that can claim such river cityscapes).
Yes, our old house that is the upper Coosa still needs some renovations, but she’s come a long way. The story of the Conasauga, in particular, is one of restoration and revival. In the early 1970s, as Dalton’s Carpet Capitol blossomed into the region’s economic engine, the Conasauga and the creeks flowing through Dalton were fouled.
The pollution was so bad that the City of Calhoun downstream abandoned its drinking water intake on the Oostanaula and began withdrawing from the nearby Coosawattee. In those days, the Conasauga and Oostanaula were stained the color of whatever carpets were being dyed. The pollution was so bad, it garnered national attention.
A 1973 film documenting this pollution aired on public broadcasting stations across the country. You can watch it at: https://youtu.be/zX4h1qDjMtM The portions featuring Dalton are found at the very beginning and at minute 21:09. Saturday Night Live fans will recognize a very young John Belushi in one portion of the film. The film is worth a look to give historic perspective to Georgia’s river protection movement.
Eventually, the Clean Water Act ended Dalton’s pollution. Today, the Conasauga and Drowning Bear Creek that were described as “lifeless” in the 1973 documentary are very much alive. This week I paddled into the mouth of Drowning Bear to find a crystal clear stream teaming with fish.
In a few short weeks, we will see this river up close and in person during Paddle Georgia. We’ll dip in its cool water, marvel at its bluffs, comb its gravel bars and sandy bottoms for mussel shells and experience its riverside communities.
I can’t wait to show off my home to my guests…just please try to ignore the peeling paint and enjoy those renovations that have been completed. As I tell folks that visit my real life circa 1889 home in downtown Rome, it is a work in progress…and always will be.
See you June 17!
Paddle Georgia Coordinator
(and nervous homeowner)