Conasauga River, headwaters
Georgia has designated an 11-mile stretch of the headwaters of the Conasauga River as one that receives the highest level of protection under the federal Clean Water Act. Credit: Environment Georgia

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.

Conasauga River, headwaters
Georgia has designated an 11-mile stretch of the headwaters of the Conasauga River as one that receives the highest level of protection under the federal Clean Water Act. Credit: Environment Georgia

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.

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...

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  1. I am a Murray County Georgia resident living on the Ga/Tn line. I am so pleased that the beautiful pristine waters of the Conasauga River has been designated as an Outstanding National Resource Water.  I along with many other residents are very concerned of  diesel fuel pollutants that will destroy the Conasauga , due to a proposed Inland Railway Port and Truck Stop to be built in this exact area . Also the building site is bordered by the Sumac Creek . We have reached out to organizations for help to protect the Conasauga and have not received any as of this date .

  2. I am a Murray Co citizen (born here) very concerned with the proposed Intermodal Port planned for north Murray Co on the very banks of the Sumac Creek. This clean,sparking creek flows into the Consasauga just four miles downstream. Diesel spills , not to speak of perpetual leakage, are not that infrequent at these Inland Ports and retention ponds are of little use on massive spills, should that occur. In addition, this area floods big time, usually once or twice a year, and absolutely would overwhelm any pitiful retention pond. A group,fb citizens are fighting this tooth and nail but unfortunately the political forces and big money is a powerful foe when it comes to environmental matters in North Georgia. We seek all help we can get from responsible press, which in our area, is controlled by these same factions I just listed. Time is truly of the essence……we need help.

  3. A wonderful article about an awesome natural resource in my community of Murray County Georgia .  Now in danger of being destroyed by a proposed inland rail port .
    I am a
    resident of Murray County Georgia, and a member of the environmental group ” North Georgia Citizens to Preserve the
    Environment” and the core group “Stop the Inland Port “.
    This is one reason we
    continue to fight to protect the Conasauga River and our natural resources .The
    Conasauga River boarders the proposed inland railroad port site in Crandall, Murray County
    Georgia . One fuel spill or hazardous
    material spill from containers shipped and stored at the port will be devastating
    . As you reported, the Conasauga River is the most
    protected river in our state . I cannot imagine what is happening to those that
    are not protected !

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