Georgia’s nascent water trail network garners support from state lawmakers

By David Pendered

At the end of a dirt path that touches the Yellow River in Newton County, one piece of the future of Georgia’s network of water trails is taking shape – a network that now has the blessings of the state House of Representatives.

Abe's Landing, Yellow River water trail, construction

The Yellow River Water Trail passes beneath I-20 and this secondary road in Newton County. Access to the water trail is being improved at this site, Abe’s Landing. Credit: David Pendered

Abe’s Landing is at mile 33 of the 53-mile Yellow River Water Trail. The water trail begins near Lilburn, at Five Forks Trickum Road, and ends at Jackson Lake. According to a description of the water trail, it passes beneath bridge columns that date to the Civil War; a working train trestle; and I-20, where Abe’s Landing is being improved. Critters living along the water trail include great blue heron, North American river otters and American Beavers.

Like all of Georgia’s water trails, this one was developed by a public/private partnership. This group includes Keep Covington/Newton Beautiful; Porterdale, a former mill town said to have been the world’s largest producer of twine; Newton County; Newton’s Water and Sewerage Authority; Yellow River Water Trail Partnership; Georgia Adopt-a-Stream; National Park Service; Northeast Georgia Regional Commission; and Georgia River Network.

“We try to bring in anybody and everybody,” said Gwyneth Moody, director of programs and outreach for the Georgia River Network

The House approved a resolution March 9 that endorses efforts by the Georgia River Network and its partners to create water trails. The resolution provides no funding. But in a state that doesn’t provide funding for a statewide water trails program, the resolution sponsored by Rep. Spencer Frye (D-Athens) is seen as a  step in the right direction.

Water trail signage, Yellow River

This sign at Abe’s Landing goes beyond the level of information the Georgia River Network requires of established water trails. This sign provides history of the area. Nearby panels provide information about river etiquette and paddling safety, and a map of the water trail. Credit: David Pendered

“It’s a show of support, especially given that some of the legislators who passed the resolution have not been supportive of some of the environmental issues that have come to the table,” Moody said. “It was nice of them to show support, and recognize the importance of highlighting the value of water trails.”

House Resolution 281 concludes:

  • “[T]he members of this body recognize Georgia River Network and their water trail partners for their dedicated public service to the State of Georgia and encourage the exploration of existing water trails and the development of future water trails around the state.”

Water trails are similar to hiking trails. Except that water trails are on a waterways instead of the land. Water trails are used for recreational paddling and kayaking. As such, water trails are popular among fishermen and birders, along with purists who enjoy canoeing and kayaking for the sheer pleasure of the experience.

Georgia now has 15 established water trails and 18 under development, Moody said. Of the 70,000 miles of rivers and streams in Georgia, 1,230 miles have been developed as water trails. The number of miles under development isn’t available, Moody said.

A water trail in Georgia is established by a stakeholder group, which often is comprised of volunteers and a local entity, typically a government. Governments are natural partners because their employees interact with waterways via water and sewer services, police, fire, and emergency medical services.

water trails, frye, moody

Georgia Rep. Spencer Frye (D-Athens) and Gwyneth Moody, director of programs and outreach for the Georgia River Network, at the Paddle Georgia legislative day. Credit: Georgia River Network

Established water trails must meet six criteria established by the Georgia River Network. According to a report on GRN’s website, the criteria include:

  • “Water trail is sponsored, maintained and promoted by a local entity or partnership;
  • “Publicly accessible areas that paddlers can legally access and safely unload boats and park vehicles;
  • “River access sites are appropriately spaced apart on the river so that they may be reasonably paddled in a few hours or a full day;
  • “Depending on the length of the trail, water access to public overnight camping sites;
  • “Information about the water trail provided to paddlers through a website and illustrative maps created by the sponsoring entity;
  • “Signage/ kiosks placed at all water trail access points that include: River etiquette information, paddling safety information, and a map of the water trail.”

HR 281 cited the economic impact of water trails as one reason the House endorsed the concept.

Lewiston Narrows, Pennsylvania Canal

Pennsylvania’s network of water trails includes the Lewiston Narrows, part of the old Pennsylvania Canal that was to connect Pittsburgh and Philadelphia but was surpassed by faster rail service. Credit: David Pendered

“People come to an area to get on a water trail and spend money in restaurants, coffee shops, hotels and gas stations, and all of that benefits the community, “ Moody said. “One thing we encourage is for partnerships to incorporate other points of interest into marketing materials, so when people come they have other things to do. They may spend a day paddling and decide to stay an extra day to see an awesome nature center or other destination.”

As Georgia continues to develop water trails, it is joining a nationwide movement, Moody said.

“Water trails are definitely growing to not only increase opportunities for recreation in a community, but to increase health and well-being,” she said.

Pennsylvania, for example, has an incredible existing resource in the form of the Pennsylvania Canal. Built in the 1800s, the canal was to link Pittsburgh with Philadelphia and eventually stretched 1,243 miles, though segments weren’t operated concurrently.

Florida's saltwater trail, Little St. George Island

Florida’s Circumnavigational Trail passes the undeveloped Little St. George Island, a barrier island that separates Apalachicola Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: David Pendered

Although it collapsed economically in the face of competition from railroads, portions of the canal system remain open for recreational use, including the Lewiston Narrows, which was part of the 123-mile Juniata Division.

Florida has the 1,515-mile-long Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail. The state refers to it as a, ”strategic long-term priority of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.” The trail stretches from near the Alabama border, around the peninsula, to the Georgia border.

Florida’s saltwater trail is part of an 800-plus mile coastal trail that connects the Chesapeake Bay and the Georgia-Florida border. Florida extended the Southeast Coast Saltwater Paddling Trail all the way around the peninsula.

“Florida is a role model, but we have 70,000 miles of rivers and streams in Georgia,” Moody said. “We have amazing rivers – the Flint, with blue springs; the Alapaha has sink holes; the Altamaha is the little Amazon. And right under our nose, the Chattahoochee.”

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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