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Safe to swim? Georgia’s rivers should be clean enough to play in the water

By RENA ANN PECK, executive director, Georgia River Network

During the last 18 months, as the COVID-19 pandemic closed gyms and other indoor entertainment venues, collectively, we have turned to the outdoors for relief. In particular, interest in water recreation has exploded. Manufacturers of canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and other boats – and associated businesses – have experienced unprecedented demand. More people than ever before are hitting Georgia’s rivers, lakes and streams.

Rena Ann Peck

Which raises the question: Are Georgia’s waterways clean enough for swimming and other water recreation activities?

Thanks to the soon-to-be 50-year-old federal Clean Water Act, Georgia’s waterways are cleaner today than when that landmark legislation was adopted. After all, the goal of the Clean Water Act is to make all of the nation’s swimmable and fishable.

Because of state regulation of municipal and industrial wastewater discharges and improvements in the control of stormwater pollution, even urban waterways including the Chattahoochee and South rivers running through metro Atlanta are safer for swimming than they have been since the dawn of the industrial age.

The water quality in Georgia’s rivers should be safe enough for people to swim and come into contact with the water, the author contends. People play in the water at the South River. File/Credit: Kelly Jordan

Yet, when it comes to designating “uses” for specific water bodies that determine what level of protection that water body will receive, Georgia’s environmental regulators remain reluctant to commit to the highest level of protection – a designated use of “recreation.”

Under this designation, the state mandates that the waterway must meet stringent year-round standards for bacteria levels. Essentially, these are the waterways that the state deems “safe” for swimming. The state’s other common river use designations – “drinking water” and “fishing” – allow for higher bacteria levels between November and April – times during which it’s assumed that people will not be swimming in natural water bodies.

While technically these water bodies are presumed safe for swimming as well, EPD assumes that people using these waterways designated for “fishing” and “drinking water” will not subject themselves to activities “involving a significant risk of water ingestion.”

Clearly, by the state’s own definitions, not all of Georgia’s waterways are truly swimmable. This conflict is especially glaring on the Chattahoochee River in Columbus, where tens of thousands of people float the city’s whitewater course annually. Many of these visitors end up in the water. If you’ve never flipped out of a raft in Class IV whitewater, let me assure you the risk of ingesting water is significant. Chattahoochee Riverkeeper has asked EPD to designate this section of river for “recreation.”

The water quality at Columbus’ whitewater rapids is not recommended for prolonged contact at certain times of year. Photo courtesy of Joe Cook

Yet, to date EPD has determined that Columbus’ nearly 10-year-old whitewater course should designated for fishing – not recreation – largely because the City of Columbus has combined stormwater-sewer overflows that empty into the river upstream and within the famed rapids course. There are signs that EPD is ready to recognize the heavy year-round recreational use on this stretch of river.

On the South River where the South River Watershed Alliance is actively developing a recreational boating trail, or water trail, EPD holds firm in its designation of that river for “fishing” despite the fact that hundreds now boat on the river regularly. The South, like the Chattahoochee in Columbus, is plagued by stormwater-sewer overflows. The South River this year was designated as one of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers,” by American Rivers, a conservation organization.

South River, paddlers, may 19, 2019

Paddlers are advised to avoid prolonged contact with water in the South River as they traveled the river south of Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area in May 2019. File/Photo courtesy of Jackie Echols

Earlier this year, Georgia River Network and other members of the Georgia Water Coalition petitioned Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division to reclassify some 2,000 miles of Georgia’s rivers to “recreation” from “fishing” because these waterways – such as the South River – are part of a growing network of water trails. Following a public comment period that stretched in fits and starts across 2019 and 2021, EPD has selected only 800 miles to consider upgrading from “fishing” to “recreation.”

Rather than choosing aspirational goals that might lead to all of Georgia’s waterways being truly swimmable, EPD appears to be conceding that existing pollution problems will continue and that on these waterways, users should engage – in EPD’s own words – in “occasional swimming,” rather than “full emersion contact” with the water.

Georgia River Network believes that all of Georgia’s water should be safe for swimming, year-round. When you fly off that rope swing or leap from that riverside cliff, you shouldn’t be fretting over “full emersion contact.” You should let out a shout of joy and plunge in, knowing the water is safe.

The Riverwalk built alongside the Chattahoochee River is a popular spot for wedding photos. Credit: David Pendered

EPD shares that goal as well, but in failing to designate water bodies that are clearly being used for recreation – including boating and swimming – it is undermining the goals of the Clean Water Act.

Soon, EPD will finalize its update of its river use classifications as part of the Triennial Review process   by the Clean Water Act. Georgia River Network encourages river users to weigh in and tell EPD to protect all of Georgia’s waterways for swimming.

Notes to readers:

In addition to her work with the Georgia River Network, Rena Ann Peck is a leading voice for river conservation, advocating for safe outdoor recreation access for all Georgians and campaigns to conserve special places, including the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

EPD has scheduled a virtual public meeting to discuss the proposed water quality standards Sept. 13 starting at 10 a.m. Written comments are to be accepted through 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 17. For more information on the meeting and submitting comments, click here.


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1 Comment

  1. Steve Williams August 22, 2021 10:40 pm

    I agree the rivers and steams are much better in general especially from point source pollution. However, non point source pollution from storm water run off and sewer overflows seems to still be a problem.

    I use to monitor E-coli on the Chattahoochee River from Powers Ferry to Paces Ferry, a wonderful afternoon run. After a significant rain e-coil would. Go to the extreme levels and take 2-3 days to get back to normal. Fertilizers, road run off, herbicides and what ever run off made this happen. I’m sure it hasn’t changed much. In rural areas farming does the same. We’ve come along way, but still not there. If your going to paddle your probably ok don’t flip. If you tubing or swimming give it at least 2 full days to wash away.

    The South River made the Ga Water Coalition’s Dirty Dozen in 2016

    Thanks again Maria for what you do! ❤️Report


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