By David Pendered
Georgia has declared the headwaters of the Conasauga River, in north Georgia, as the state’s first “Outstanding National Resource Water.” The designation provides the highest level of protection available under the federal Clean Water Act.
The Georgia Board of Natural Resources voted Aug. 25 to designate an 11-mile stretch of the Conasauga River as a Tier 3 waterway. The board specified the following length of river as designated: “Conasauga River within the Cohutta Wilderness Area of the Chattahoochee National Forest (headwaters to Forest Service Road 17).”
The language in the Clean Water Act that describes Tier 3 seems to be black-letter law: “Except for certain temporary changes, water quality cannot be lowered in such waters.”
The board provided this additional language it the amendment approved to the section in state law titled Water Quality Control:
- “Activities that result in short-term, temporary, and limited changes to water quality may be allowed if authorized by the [Environmental Protection] Division and the water quality is returned or restored to conditions equal to or better than those existing prior to the activities.”
Jennette Gayer, the state advocate at Environment Georgia, which has championed the designation since at least 2007, said Tuesday the language allowing for temporary changes is an important part of the designation.
The language envisions improvements to be made near the river by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, which manages the Cohutta Wilderness Area.
The notion of “temporary changes” will enable the Forest Service to reroute trails or relocate a campground, actions that likely will have some temporary effect on water quality, Gayer said.
“The language in the code allows for … the ultimate idea that the changes will result in restoring the water to the original, or even better, condition,” Gayer said. “If you’re rerouting a trail or moving a campground, it’s because you want to protect water quality in the river.”
Lots of high-powered folks have written eloquent messages about the reasons the Conasauga’s headwaters deserve extreme protection. The non-profit U.S. PIRG Education Fund is one of them, having described the Conasauga River in a 2006 report as one of the 10 exceptional waterways in the southeast.
Here are some thoughts from those who live near the river, as expressed by the sole commissioner of Murray County, Jim Welch, and the deputy clerk, Charlene Miles, in a resolution dated July 1, 2008:
- “Whereas: The Conasauga River is one of the 10 most biologically diverse rivers in the nation, being home to 90 different species of fish, one of which lives no where else in the world;
- “Whereas: The Conasauga River is a favorite destination for Georgians who enjoy fishing, paddling, camping, hiking and the appreciation of beautiful mountain scenery;
- “Whereas: The designation of the Conasauga River, within the Cohutta Wilderness Area, as an ONRW waterbody would both protect the river for future generations and increase tourism in the area.”
The Clean Water Act requires states to establish a three-tier anti-degradation program. Until the Conasauga River was named a Tier 3 waterway, Georgia and Mississippi were the only states that had not provided the ultimate level of protection from development and other environmental stressors.